As COVID-19 spread rapidly across the United States, so too did unclear (and sometimes contradictory) information about it. Establishment media outlets had the crucial task of clarifying information and providing factual evidence about the disease to support the statements being made to the American public by government officials. However, as Julie Hollar reported in an article posted on the Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) website in May 2020, many prominent commercial TV news networks failed to provide this essential service by excluding the voices of independent health officials in their coverage of, and discussion panels about, the pandemic. The networks’ disregard for health experts and public interest advocates raises serious ethical concerns, as it exacerbated the risks posed by the spread of COVID-19 to the health and well-being of those watching.
Renowned media watchdog FAIR analyzed the Sunday schedule of programs for five major media networks—NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN, and Fox News—during April 2020 to determine how many health experts and public interest groups were featured on each network’s programs. Of all 121 featured guests, only 26 were health experts; most of the rest were current or former government appointees. The number of independent public health experts featured also varied depending upon the network; for instance, health experts made up 14 percent of the guests featured on CBS and NBC, but 0 percent of the guests on CNN.
FAIR’s research uncovered other disparities in guests’ backgrounds. Among elected officials or political appointees featured as guests, Republicans dominated Democrats 41 to 34. This is hardly a surprise. As Hollar points out, “FAIR and others have shown that Republicans historically dominate on Sunday shows regardless of which party is in power.”
There were other significant disparities as well. The programs that FAIR examined included only three foreign officials across all five networks. Further, while the five major TV networks provided platforms for the CEO of Bank of America, two Federal Reserve bank presidents, and billionaire businessmen Bill Gates, Barry Diller, and Mark Cuban, FAIR “found not a single mention of the cancel rent movement or the widespread struggles people are facing to pay for housing, or of the labor strikes against Amazon to protest unsafe conditions.” Additionally, men (70 percent of guests) were featured far more than women (30 percent of guests).
Julie Hollar, “In Pandemic, Sunday Shows Centered Official Voices, Sidelined Independent Health Experts,” Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), May 22, 2020.
Student Researcher: Madisen Ritter (Indian River State College)
Faculty Evaluator: Elliot D. Cohen (Indian River State College)
Illustration by Anson Stevens-Bollen.