Coronavirus, Public Perceptions and the Dangers of “News Deserts”

The coronavirus pandemic highlights the danger of “news deserts.” The term has been used to describe “a community, either rural or urban, with limited access to the sort of credible and comprehensive news and information that feeds democracy at the grassroots level.”

But a different kind of news and information desertification has occurred in recent years. It’s not just about whole communities but also individuals and diffuse groups of individuals, and it’s not just about having access to information but also about segments of the American populace that don’t seek to obtain clear, fact-based information, even on existentially vital matters. Despite the technological explosion – and because of it – many Americans lack the infrastructure (broadband, for example, or even the latest computers or smartphones) required to access the internet effectively or, conversely, they are overwhelmed by it. At the same time, people are barraged with foreign and domestic disinformation and subject to the poisonous politicization of news and information.

“This really is a security issue,” said Professor Penny Abernathy, the Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics in the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “There’s a lack of transparency all the way through the system right now.”

Political Orientation, Fox News and Views on COVID-19

On just disinformation and politicization alone, several polls in recent weeks have demonstrated correlations between political leanings and understanding of the depth of the coronavirus crisis. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll taken March 11-13 found that 80 percent of Democrats believed the situation was likely to get worse, but only 40 percent of Republicans and 57 percent of independents thought so. That was despite the World Health Organization (WHO) declaration on March 11 that the spread of the virus constituted a pandemic and President Donald Trump’s announcement the same day that he would block travel from Europe.

While 51 percent of U.S. adults surveyed by the Pew Research Center on March 10-16 said they were following news about the unfolding pandemic “very closely” and 38 percent “fairly closely,” a vast majority of Republicans  — 76 percent – said they thought the news media had exaggerated the risks, compared with 49 percent of Democrats.

“Republicans who got political news only from outlets whose audiences lean right politically are more likely than Republicans with other media diets to think the news media have greatly exaggerated the risks associated with the virus and to think COVID-19 was created intentionally in a lab,” Pew reported. Among Fox News viewers in the Pew survey, 63 percent “said they believed the virus posed a minor threat to the health of the country, compared with 31 percent of MSNBC viewers and 37 percent of CNN viewers,” CNN reported.

Gallup found similar patterns in a poll taken March 2-13. While the degree of concern had increased since the organization’s previous poll in early February, “political party identification reflects the starkest differences in levels of worry about coronavirus exposure,” Gallup reported. Among Democrats, 73 percent were “very” or “somewhat” worried, compared with just 42 percent of Republicans who were concerned.

More Subtle Information Desertification

On March 12, the day after WHO declared the pandemic and Trump imposed the European travel ban, a father of a newborn in a well-to-do neighborhood of Washington DC who couldn’t find diapers because the local stores had already sold out headed to a suburb on a hunch — a couple of construction workers from there had seemed to know relatively little about the unfolding calamity. Sure enough, just eight miles away, it was business as usual at a suburban Walmart. Plenty of diapers.

Two days later, after Trump had declared a national emergency and amid a cascade of major U.S. cities and entire European countries shutting down bars and restaurants and exhorting residents to stay home and limit groups, police in New Orleans threaded their vehicles through crowds along the famed Bourbon Street, urging people through megaphones to disperse. “Your actions are jeopardizing public health,” the officers called out. Did these tourists and residents not know about the unfolding disaster, or not believe? Where do they get their news, or do they not pay attention or care at all? Do they have an unusual risk-benefit calculation?

And the group of rowdy spring breakers on a South Florida beach who boasted their defiance in a CBS News video that went viral last week – surely they’re hyper-connected technologically. But what is it that consumes all that data on their smartphones? What news or factual information, if any, do they consume? Are they instead listening to the likes of Evangeline Lilly? The star of the 2018 film “Ant-Man and the Wasp” and previously the television series “Lost” declared to her 2.3 million followers on Instagram last week that she was pursuing her life “business as usual,” dropping her children off at a gymnastics camp. “Some people value their lives over freedom, some people value freedom over their lives,” she replied to expressions of concern, the New York Post website Page 6 reported, even as she revealed that she was living with her father, who has stage 4 leukemia.

Other incidents illustrate the deadly power of technology in an age of information proliferation and disinformation.

A Los Angeles Times columnist on March 16 urged on Twitter: “Asian Americans/immigrant kids: Call your relatives, parents etc – esp if they get news in a different language – and get on the same page re safety. It’s a whole separate world of rumors to combat. My mom just texted me a rumor about planes dropping disinfectant from the sky.” A producer of the news website Quartz responded: “Relatives sent me on wechat: 1. Trump test positive and US is in total chaos. 2. US will have nation-wide disinfectant spraying from 4:30am. Parallel universe out there.”

A day earlier, the White House National Security Council had to issue a tweet to warn about what it said was foreign disinformation being spread on the most rudimentary technology, text messaging: “Text message rumors of a national #quarantine are FAKE,” tweeted the National Security Council on March 15. “There is no national lockdown.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in a March 20 White House press briefing by the federal coronavirus task force, said a range of “pretty diffused” disinformation is coming “from places like China and Russia and Iran, where there are coordinated efforts to disparage what America is doing in our activity to do all the things that President Trump has set in motion here.”

But Trump himself has been a leading purveyor of misinformation and disinformation during the crisis, whether on Twitter or from the White House podium. Just two days ago, he issued a storm of tweets and retweets overnight that perpetuated conspiracy theories about the coronavirus, promoted a claimed cure (there is none yet, and even Trump’s own Justice Department has warned Americans about fraudulent claims), and randomly lambasted favorite targets ranging from China to the WHO to the New York Times, .

These cases and many more raise crucial questions about who is getting what information, how, and from what sources, and how much they trust even accurate information during an unprecedented crisis for American health care, the economy, society, and its democracy.

The evidence emerging from this crisis requires broader understanding of news/information deserts. Not only do too many communities, neighborhoods, and individuals lack access to traditionally strong media outlets, but a range of other factors also undermine the quality, accuracy, and clarity of news and information that average Americans absorb on a daily basis or in a crisis. These factors include:

  • access to broadband and other technology;
  • degree of “news literacy,” or the ability to sort fact from fiction;
  • politicization of news and information;
  • language barriers (community organizers and public health clinics in Washington D.C. are enlisting street vendors to distribute reliable information along with supplies such as hand sanitizer);
  • news and information consumption habits;
  • the proliferation of disinformation, foreign and domestic, including a constant storm of false, unclear, or contradictory official government statements and advice from the highest levels of government;
  • repeated bashing of news outlets and individual reporters by left- and right-wing, the latter led by Trump from the White House podium.

And that’s just to name a few.

Some of those factors stem far less from news “deserts” as from the opposite: the tsunami of information coming at Americans on a daily basis through the full range of media, not just television, radio, newspapers and digital news, but also text messaging and simple email, and the ongoing explosion of social media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, WhatsApp, WeChat, Messenger, chat rooms, and on and on).

The coronavirus crisis shows the degree of danger in this other kind of viral spread – that of information, accurate or not, useful or not, comprehensible or not.

The Decline of Local Sources and the Income Divide

A healthy number of news providers used to sort through the morass for their audiences, while still maintaining at least a degree of competition in areas with more than one broadcast or print outlet.

Abernathy, at UNC, leads a project tracking the decline of community newspapers, traditionally the primary source of credible news for local residents, based on a database of more than 9,000 newspapers. By 2018, the research “found a net loss since 2004 of almost 1,800 local newspapers,” according to the resulting report, The Expanding News Desert. Abernathy said in an interview last week that the latest research, to be published this year, shows a total drop by the end of December 2019 of more than 2,100.

“Almost all of those papers tended to be small dailies or weeklies,” she said. “So when they vanished, the community did not have a local news source.”

This isn’t happening only in rural areas, but also in urban and suburban clusters, Abernathy said. In fact, the loss is spread across inner-city neighborhoods, too — GateHouse Media, for example, last year consolidated 50 local weeklies in the Boston area, including in outer suburbs and in rural areas, into just 18 publications – a loss of more than 30 community news outlets.

Places that have lost newspapers tend to be much poorer, Abernathy said, with an average poverty rate of 18 percent vs. the U.S. average of 13 percent. Their populations also were older or otherwise had much less access to other sources of information, often because they lacked broadband access.

What’s more, state or regional newspapers such as the Charlotte Observer that traditionally covered wider terrain with substantial investigative and analytical reporting have cut their staffs repeatedly.

Cuts Continue Amid the Pandemic

The decimation continues to deepen. Just last month, McClatchy, which publishes 30 newspapers including the Miami Herald and the Kansas City Star, filed for bankruptcy protection. In late February, layoffs were underway at more than a dozen newspapers in the Gannett chain after its merger with GateHouse, according to the Poynter Institute. “Gannett Co., the largest newspaper chain in both Massachusetts and the U.S., had 3,000 fewer employees at the end of 2019 than its two pre-merger companies had a year earlier, a decrease of 12.7 percent,” the Boston Business Journal reported.

The once-proud Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio, announced March 9, just as the coronavirus crisis was taking hold, that it “would cut 22 newsroom employees, which by some accounts meant that its reporting ranks might drop to as few as 14,” Washington Post Media Columnist Margaret Sullivan reported. This, in a metropolitan area of some 3 million people (possibly 4 million for Northeast Ohio, depending on statistics). As recently as the 1990s, Sullivan noted, the Plain Dealer had “more than 300 reporters, editors, photographers, designers and other newsroom personnel.”

In his announcement, Plain Dealer Editor Tim Warsinskey, rejected the idea that Cleveland was becoming a news desert.

“That’s not happening,” he wrote. “As you know, the content created by our sister company, cleveland.com, contributes heavily to The Plain Dealer. The Plain Dealer and cleveland.com will have 77 journalists covering stories that matter to Northeast Ohio readers, including reporters based in Akron, Columbus and Washington, D.C.”

Just last week, New England Newspapers Inc. in Massachusetts announced a one-week furlough of its staffers, and the Military Times group is furloughing employees until April 6, according to The Week.

Glut of News Sources

While online outlets of news and information have sprouted up everywhere, partly in an attempt to fill the gap, few have been able to replace the reach and professional level of traditional news outlets. And even when they succeed, the glut of news sources is impossible for most people with full-time jobs (or 2 or 3 jobs at minimum wage) to sort through.

The New York Times, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle are among the news sites that have, commendably, made much of their online news on the coronavirus pandemic available for free. But people have to know that, and they need the technology – computers, smartphones, and wifi or enough data on cell. Virginia’s public schools aren’t requiring remote teaching or assignments at least for now, based on guidance from the state, “because school leaders `cannot ensure equity in access’ to resources, including computers and Internet service,” the Washington Post reported. If the children in these homes don’t have access, the chances are the adults don’t either.

And if they did, they would have to know how to navigate the onslaught of information.

“Advances in technology have given citizens unparalleled access to the world’s great pool of knowledge and people,” noted a February 2019 report from the Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy, organized by the Aspen Institute and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. “Yet that same technology is overwhelming individuals’ ability to find news they consider trustworthy.”

A 2018 Knight-Gallup report found that 58 percent of Americans “say the increased number of news sources makes it harder to be informed.” At the same time, “half of adults (50 percent) say there are enough sources to sort out facts, down from 66 percent in 1985.”

The Politicization of Information

And that’s all before we even touch on the issues of trust and dependability of news and information in the age of disinformation and political divisions. The Knight-Gallup poll found that just 50 percent of Americans “feel confident people can cut through bias to sort out the facts in the news — down from 66 percent a generation ago. And less than one third of Americans say they, personally, are very confident they can tell when a news source is reporting factual news versus commentary or opinion.”

The past two weeks of news coverage of the coronavirus has been replete with unclear advice and information from local, state, and federal authorities, up to and including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the White House. The information and advice has not only evolved, which is understandable as such a crisis unfolds, but has also vacillated from day to day, or hour to hour, or expert to expert. And it has been polluted by political considerations.

Some experts and authorities, for example, have said it’s advisable to go outdoors for exercise as long as people stay at least 6 feet away from others they don’t live with. But then came reports of French authorities outraged at residents enjoy the fresh air in the parks of Paris, and of Puerto Rican police chasing residents and visitors off of what appear to be uncrowded beaches.

And then there’s the disinformation, foreign and domestic. Fact checkers such as the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler have tracked dozens of false or misleading claims from Trump since January, in interviews, during campaign rallies, on Twitter, from the White House podium, etc. These instances include weeks of denial about the severity of the crisis, dangerous messages that were reinforced in Trump-aligned news media such as Fox News, until they abruptly flipped the switch a little over a week ago. A typical exchange occurred with host Maria Bartiromo interviewing U.S. Representative Devin Nunes on March 15, when he advised: “If you’re healthy –you and your family — it’s a great time to go out and go to a local restaurant. Likely you can get in easy. Let’s not hurt the working people in this country…go to your local pub.” By that time, federal authorities had already urged social distancing, and major cities around the country were ordering bars and restaurants to limit service to takeout and delivery.

At the same time, Trump and his supporters inside and outside the administration  echo his constant bashing of news media he doesn’t like, undermining their credibility with arguably those who most need the information coming from those outlets – his supporters. On Twitter, the hashtag #MediaVirus is being used not for news reports about the coronavirus, but for pro-Trump tweets playing down the seriousness of the virus and slamming the media outlets he targets most.

Such “`filter bubbles’ make it possible for people to live in `echo chambers,’ exposed primarily to the information and opinions that are in accord with their own,” the 2019 Knight Commission report said. (See Georgetown Law’s Joshua Geltzer, a Just Security executive editor, exploration of other disturbing dimensions  of the filter bubble.)

As the recent poll results show, the Trump-era political divide in the United States has had a huge effect on which Americans are receiving reliable, accurate news and what any of them believe. In reporting on the NBC News/Wall Street Journal results, the Washington Post’s Aaron Blake wrote, “The doubts are particularly prevalent among Trump’s base, with just 40 percent of Republicans fearing that a family member would catch the disease, another 40 percent agreeing that the worst is yet to come, and just 12 percent saying they have stopped or plan to stop going to restaurants.”

Pew Research published poll results in June 2019 showing that 27 percent of American adults believe “a lot” of “made-up news and information is created” about health and medicine, and 51 percent think there is “some” of that. Only 21 percent think “not much or none” of health and medical information is made up.

These depths of distrust add to the challenge of pulling the country together toward a common goal of defeating this virus and rebuilding when it’s over.

IMAGE: U.S. Vice President Mike Pence holds up a CDC advisory while flanked by U.S. President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr at the daily coronavirus briefing at the White House on March 23, 2020 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

 

About the Author(s)

Viola Gienger

Washington Editor for Just Security and research scholar at NYU School of Law. Follow her on Twitter (@violagienger).