Media coverage of pandemic under close scrutiny

Photo by Lisa Miller University of Minnesota Communications Studies Professor Catherine Squires

Of special concern is how impacts on People of Color are reported

Blacks are dying from COVID-19 almost twice as often as members of other racial groups. Among the many urgent questions this shocking reality raises is how it is being reported by other local and national media.

“This is a perennial problem with the way race is covered in mainstream media, which is haphazard,” said University of Minnesota Communications Studies Professor Catherine Squires. She told the MSR that Blacks and other POCs get hit first whenever a pandemic strikes.

“Everybody is getting hit—the virus is not discriminating and staying in certain neighborhoods. African Americans are getting hit harder because of those racial disparities, but the virus doesn’t discriminate.
“They [the media] noticed the pattern [of racial inequities] and the statistics…even though the information about the disparities in health care has been talked about for the last how many decades,” Squires said.

A recent Pew Research Center study found that one of every four Blacks last month knew someone who had been hospitalized or died from the virus. It also found that the virus altered life for U.S. Blacks in many ways, especially financially: 44 percent of Blacks say they have experienced a wage loss due to COVID, up eight percent from March (36 percent).

Blacks (48 percent) also say the coronavirus have made it harder to pay monthly bills as opposed to 44 percent Latino and 26 percent White. Among Blacks, 73 percent say they do not have emergency funds to cover three months of expenses and can’t cover it by borrowing money, using savings, or selling assets, the survey reported.

Squires, who has authored books and articles on media, race and politics, added that Blacks and other POC also most likely will be in the “last hired, first fired” category when it comes to employment and having health insurance through their jobs. They are more likely to be “in types of work that might be seasonal or types of work that is part time and you don’t work enough hours to qualify for the company health insurance.”

Then, in addition to the virus outbreak, “Our people are more likely to be living in areas that are toxic…and because of the way that redlining and other ways that racial segregation in neighborhoods function and the imbalance of political power,” Squires continued. “If your lungs are already weak because you live so close to an incinerator, and you then get the virus, [you are] going to be more susceptible.”

Significant racial inequities are showing up in Minnesota even though the state has a smaller Black population and COVID cases and deaths are lower than in other areas of the country. “This idea that a small number of cases don’t merit any analysis of racial and ethnic disparities or even gender disparities doesn’t make sense,” the professor noted.

“I hope that this is a wakeup call to show folk that having universal health care is a good thing, and not tying health care to job status is a good thing. If this doesn’t do it, I don’t know what will,” Squires said.
“People are seeing the gaps and how dangerous that they are. If the virus doesn’t show people that as a whole society, health is interdependent, and it is not just every person for themselves. This is the kind of thing that leveled the playing field…

“These are the kinds of things I think get left out of a lot of stories [on COVID coverage],” she said. “Unless you bother to go read the whole two- or three-page story, you finally get to the expert or historian who says people who have less access [to health care] are who are going to get hit worse. I feel like that story is not being told through the headlines.”

Misinformation, false COVID cures, conspiracy theories, and other pandemic hoaxes also has been spread through social media, says a new report by NewsGuard, a journalism group that rates over 4,000 news and information sites. It listed 10 Twitter accounts with a combined 3.2 million-plus fake news followers.

Squires predicts that a case study on the virus coverage will be done. “I’m sure that I will have students, and my colleagues will have students, or themselves will be doing this analysis on what happened when the news did this coverage from lots of different angles. There are a lot of folk talking about even how irresponsible to have live coverage of [virus] briefings because so much information was put forward.

“There are so many different angles of the media performance as well as thinking about the different ways race was discussed and all the different connections. It is going to take some time… I am assuming by the time we get to the fall, there will be some pretty preliminary analysis on how the media reported this on various platforms.”