Nightly network news and cable news aren’t telling the same coronavirus story

March 16, 2021 11:00

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, television news has served as a crucial source of information for Americans. In fact, many networks saw record ratings during the crisis. News coverage not only provides the public with updates on the impact of the virus, but also serves as a guiding force for how to act in response to the situation. But what happens when viewers get a different story depending on which network they choose? The Center for Media Engagement’s study reveals differences in how nightly network news and cable news broadcasts are covering the virus. At a time when the public needs facts, the results reveal that cable networks are politicizing the virus — seemingly putting profit and partisanship above public health.
The Research
To analyze how networks were covering the coronavirus, the Center for Media Engagement looked at the content of nightly network news broadcasts on ABC, CBS, and NBC and of primetime cable news network shows on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC. The study examined coverage between January of 2020, when the U.S. saw its first confirmed case of coronavirus, and June of 2020, after the country passed two million confirmed or probable cases.

People and Organizations Referenced
For this part of the study, we looked at differences in how often networks mentioned health officials and organizations and how often they mentioned partisans. The results showed that Fox News and MSNBC discussed partisans more often than health officials and organizations — with Fox News more likely to mention Democrats in their coverage and MSNBC more likely to mention Republicans. Broadcast networks and CNN mentioned health officials and organizations more often than they mentioned partisans.

Language Used
To analyze the differences in the language used by the networks, we compared the phrases used across pairs of networks. When comparing Fox News and MSNBC, we found that Fox News was more likely to talk about the virus in terms of business and the economy and MSNBC was more likely to talk about the effects on healthcare institutions. MSNBC was more likely to use words relating to the scale of the virus, and Fox News was more likely to use terms related to China.

When comparing Fox News and CNN, we found that Fox News was more likely to use words associated with business and the economy, more likely to discuss drug treatments, and more likely to mention China, whereas CNN was more likely to use words related to prevention and to discuss testing and vaccines.

Ethics Training:
Guidelines on Commentary in News Coverage  | March 25, 2 pm ET/11 am PT  | Free but registration required. Sign up here.

RTDNA's new coverage guidelines offer advice and direction on how to properly identify commentary in news coverage and how to make sure it upholds the journalistic promise of Truth and Accuracy. Join members of the RTDNA Board of Directors and Ethics Committee, Tim Scheld of WCBS Newsradio 880 in New York City and Lynn Hatter of WFSU in Tallahassee, for a 30-minute Lunch & Learn to review the new coverage guidelines and develop strategies to apply them in your newsroom. 

A comparison of CNN and MSNBC found that MSNBC was more likely to use economic terms and words describing the widespread scale of the virus, and CNN was more likely to discuss a wide range of treatments.

When comparing cable networks to broadcast networks, we found that ABC, CBS, and NBC used similar language. The broadcast networks were more likely than the cable networks to use specific terms like numbers, places, and locations when talking about the virus.

Factual Claims
The study looked at factual claims on two issues: mask-wearing and the use of disinfectants or ultraviolet light to fight the coronavirus. When covering mask-wearing, networks were likely to share information in line with current guidelines at the time of the reports. Fox News, however, was the least likely to present correct information after the CDC mask-wearing guidelines were released in April.

When looking at coverage of the use of disinfectants and ultraviolet light, MSNBC and Fox News included incorrect or misleading information in more of their content than did the other networks.
What the Results Mean for News Consumers
The results of this study show just how politicized the virus has become. But the implications go beyond the coronavirus pandemic. The simple act of choosing a news program, or perhaps choosing between nightly network news or cable news, can drastically affect the information people are exposed to — and therefore affect how they act in a crisis. We hope this research will empower people to take a closer look at where they turn for their news. It’s important for the public to know which way programs lean and to consider whether the source is actually providing news — or just opinion.

To see more on the findings, check out the Center for Media Engagement’s full report.


2021 Events