By Anthony DiMaggio
The old adage that “the more things change the more they stay the same” seems particularly appropriate to media coverage in the Covid-19 crisis. Old patterns of media bias have continued, albeit in an intensified form, as pandemic’s effects have intensified over time. Of particular concern are longstanding problems with mass media reporting, as related to the marginalization of inequality coverage during a time of rising economic instability and collapse.
News reporting has long downplayed the problem of record inequality in the U.S. In researching my forthcoming book, Unequal America, I documented how, across television, print, online, and local news, U.S. economic coverage in the 2000s and 2010s consistently emphasized market-based economic metrics – primarily of interest to corporations such as unemployment – while suppressing reporting of societal class divisions and inequality. Utilizing the Nexis-Uni historical news archive, I show how coverage of unemployment dominated the news throughout these two decades, receiving between four to five times as much coverage as inequality in the period prior to the 2008 economic crash. That imbalance continued post-2008 and into the 2010s, with unemployment receiving from five to seven times as much coverage as inequality.
The pattern of marginalizing inequality continued during the periods immediately preceding and following the onset of the Covid-19 crisis in early 2020. My examination of print, television, and local media coverage in Unequal America demonstrates that reporting on inequality fell by between a third to two-thirds from the pre-Covid period (January and March), compared to after its emergence in the U.S. (by March). Throughout this three-month period, unemployment reporting increased by two to four times, depending on the outlet I examined. By March, unemployment coverage was receiving between two to six times as much coverage per month, compared to reporting on inequality.
Unemployment remains a highly salient issue in the Covid-19 era. We face a rapid rise in jobless claims, with various estimates suggesting unemployment reached between 16 to 20 percent by late April. But it is not clear why it unemployment should be seen as a more important economic metric than inequality, at a time when Covid-19 is disproportionately ravaging neighborhoods populated by poor people of color, and low-pay service workers on the frontlines of the crisis. Racial and economic stratification remain at the center of the radically different Covid-19-related health outcomes Americans experience, when comparing poor people and poor people of color clustered together in inner city communities that are marked by extensive contacts, and more affluent white neighborhoods, with residents who benefit from greater social distancing as a result of living in less dense, sprawling suburbs. Inequality is also highly significant when considering that lower income Americans are more likely to work in jobs that require extensive contacts between individuals, whereas higher-income white collar workers have been able to escape regular contacts with others by retreating into remote work tele-jobs that radically reduce their potential contacts with Covid-19-positive individuals. In sum, inequality remains an incredibly important metric for understanding how people have experienced this pandemic.
Despite the importance to understanding Covid-19, there has been relatively little interest in the subject, relative to journalists’ fixation on market-based economic metrics like unemployment. I learned this the hard way as a social scientist who sought to raise attention to the issue of inequality – more specifically in my failed efforts to draw reporters’ attention to the question of inequality’s relevance to Covid-19. In my exhaustive search for polling data on public opinion of the inequality question in the Covid-19 era, I was unable to identify a single national survey done in March or April addressing the inequality issue, at all, or as it relates to American politics and policy, and the potential role of government in addressing the problem of rising inequality. I sought to rectify this hole in our understanding of Covid-19 by designing some national polling questions that covered these issues, which were then administered by the Harris Polling group. My questions, which were fielded to a nationally-representative audience in early April, revealed the following about Americans’ political-economic attitudes:
– An overwhelming 78 percent of Americans agreed that,“considering the spread of coronavirus in the U.S. and its impact on the economy and the American people,” it is “somewhat” or “very important” that “the U.S. government commit to reducing economic inequality,” over the next year, through “raising the minimum wage” and “taxing households making more than $250,000 a year to guarantee health care coverage to all American who lack access.” Only 21 percent felt reducing inequality through such actions is “not very important” or “not at all important.”
– A significant majority – 57 percent of Americans – agreed that, “in a time of growing economic instability and rising unemployment claims, the U.S. is increasingly divided between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots.’”
But none of the above findings have made their way into mass media reporting, as they’ve been ignored by all the major corporations that control the news in the U.S. The school where I am employed, Lehigh University, makes serious efforts via its public relations department to promote the academic works of scholars, by sending out press releases and submitting relevant commentary and analysis pieces to their many contacts in the U.S. mass media. In my case, the press release, and an accompanying analysis piece including the information on my Harris survey results, were both sent to numerous media outlets and news aggregators commonly used by corporate media journalists to construct their news stories. My phone and email contacts were also included in the press releases, for those journalists who might choose to write a news story on public opinion of inequality in the Covid-19 era. The press release and accompanying analysis received no interest whatsoever, not from a single mainstream corporate journalist or news organization, or from any mainstream news websites that run analysis pieces on American political and economic affairs. The issue of public opinion on inequality in the Covid-19 era has been, for all intents and purposes, a non-issue – subject to a complete media blackout.
Coverage of Covid-19-related issues has understandably filled the vast majority of the news hole across mainstream news organizations, when looking at media coverage over the last few months. But what is lost in the single-minded emphasis on market-based metrics like unemployment, at the expense of inequality coverage? Importantly, we lose context in terms of understanding the variety of ways in which this pandemic has affected the economic lives of Americans. Clearly, Americans believe that inequality is an important problem that should be addressed, discussed, and deliberated upon, to assess what the public’s and the government’s responsibilities are to fellow Americans, and to those who are the most at risk, financially and health-wise, in this crisis period. But without sustained coverage of inequality’s place in the Covid-19 crisis, and without any journalistic attention to American public opinion on the inequality problem, it is unlikely that a serious discussion of what government can do to combat rising economic insecurity will happen any time soon.
Anthony DiMaggio is Associate Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He earned his PhD from the University of Illinois, Chicago, and is the author of 9 books, including most recently: Political Power in America (SUNY Press, 2019) and Rebellion in America (Routledge, 2020). He can be reached at: [email protected]