Since the COVID-19 outbreak began in Wuhan, China, journalists at the biggest U.S. news organizations have diligently reported on the many dangers posed by its rapid spread.
Yet even as entire states – like California and New York – shut down, many Americans still don’t believe that the coronavirus is as big a deal as the news media has made it out to be. A poll conducted in mid-March found that only 56% of Americans consider the coronavirus a “real threat,” and that 38% believe that it has been “blown out of proportion.” A more recent poll similarly found that only 57% of U.S. residents see the coronavirus as “the biggest concern facing your family right now.”
It’s true that there has been a lot of coverage. The New York Times has consistently documented the spread of the virus across the globe, making it clear just how infectious the disease is.
More recently, the Washington Post published a compelling series of visuals demonstrating the importance of “flattening the curve” so that the effect of coronavirus in the U.S. would be less severe.
The coronavirus has been the main story on television news, too, and the social distancing related to the virus has affected the way television news gets produced.
People aren’t missing the coverage, either: Online news consumption has gone up drastically since the beginning of March.
Still, a significant portion of the American people are unprepared and uninformed about the pandemic journalists have warned about for months, which is now upon us all. Why is that? As someone who researches the relationship between journalism and the public, I have observed a growing consensus within journalism scholarship around a possible answer: People simply don’t trust what they’re reading and hearing.
The causes of journalism’s credibility crisis
Public trust in journalism has been a problem for the news industry for decades. Journalism boasted the highest level of public trust in 1977, with 72% of Americans reporting that they trusted the news media “a great deal” or “a fair amount.” Journalism’s credibility has been on a long down-slide since, with the mass media now trusted by just 41% of Americans. This is higher than the record low of 32% in 2016, but it means that more than half of the country’s citizens have little to no trust in the news that they’re exposed to.
Some within the media industry have identified a number of reasons journalism’s credibility is so low. One is the misinformation campaigns that routinely flood social media platforms and run the risk of conflating real news with fake news in the minds of the public.
Politics is another factor: Political leaders frequently refer to news stories and publishers as “fake news,” and audiences themselves increasingly gauge the quality of the news through a politically ideological lens. There is now a growing group of researchers focused on understanding “the right wing media ecosystem,” which includes “news” sources that publish misleading or false claims while also dismissing more mainstream news sources.