Cable and Nightly Network News Coverage of Coronavirus

The public frequently turns to television news for updates on the coronavirus pandemic — but not all viewers are getting the same story. As our report shows, there are stark coverage differences across networks, revealing a troubling trend of politicized coverage of the virus.

To see how news reports differed, the Center for Media Engagement, in collaboration with Dr. Ashley Muddiman and her team at the University of Kansas and Dr. Ceren Budak and her team at the University of Michigan, examined the content of primetime cable news network shows on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC and nightly network news broadcasts on ABC, CBS, and NBC between January and June of 2020. The results revealed differences in the amount of coverage, the people and organizations referenced, the language used, and the factual claims made in coverage of the virus.

We found that Fox News and MSNBC were more likely to mention partisans than health experts and organizations, whereas CNN and the broadcast news networks mentioned health experts and organizations more frequently than partisans. When it came to language, Fox News was more likely than the other cable networks to use words associated with the economy, the Chinese origins of the virus, and possible treatments. MSNBC was more likely than Fox News to use words associated with the health implications and the scale of the virus. We also examined how the networks covered facts related to mask-wearing and to President Trump’s speculative claim that disinfectants and ultraviolet light may prove useful in combating the virus. We found that Fox News was less likely to cover these topics and proportionally less likely to present correct information about mask-wearing and more likely to present incorrect information about the use of disinfectants and ultraviolet light.

The results highlight the importance of understanding how programs lean — and knowing whether they are providing news or opinion. We hope this report will empower the public to consider where they get their news and will lead news organizations to consider strategies for letting the public know when content is news versus opinion. To this end, we’ve also compiled a list of network advertisers, board members, and shareholders as part of this research.

A more comprehensive look at this project is available here.