Expert Commentary

Americans view the coronavirus pandemic through a lens of media trust and politics

Whether Americans support lockdown measures meant to control the spread of the new coronavirus has to do with their personal political beliefs and trust in media, according to new survey results.

(Joshua Hoehne / Unsplash)

Whether Americans support lockdown measures meant to control the spread of the new coronavirus has to do with their personal political beliefs and trust in media, according to new survey results from economists at The University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

The team of economists — Marianne Bertrand, Guglielmo Briscese, Maddalena Grignani and Salma Nassar — has released selected results from the first and second surveys of a panel of 1,400 Americans representative of the U.S. population. The first survey was conducted April 6 to 11. The second survey was conducted April 13 to 18. The team plans to conduct more surveys with the same panel before the November elections.

Three-quarters of Democrats surveyed support keeping the lockdown in place for as long as needed, compared with 45% of Republicans. The 41% of people surveyed who lost income because of the pandemic were not more likely to support a quick reopening of the American economy.

“In other words, politics more than economics is dividing Americans when it comes to what is the right trade-off our government should make between saving lives and hurting the economy,” the authors write.

The team also found links between media trust and support for lockdown measures. More than one-third of Republicans think the media is exaggerating the threat of the new coronavirus, compared with 9% of Democrats. Among Republicans who don’t think the media is overplaying the coronavirus threat, less than 20% favor a quick reopening. But among Republicans who think the media is exaggerating, more than 40% support a quick reopening.

“Besides trust in the media, trust in the U.S. president is another important correlate of preferences for an earlier reopening of the economy,” the authors write. “Individuals who have low confidence in the president are much more likely to favor a longer lockdown.”

In coming weeks, the researchers will ask that same panel how the coronavirus is affecting their economic and mental well-being. From the start, the pandemic has taken an emotional toll on many Americans, “with low-income households being the most concerned about their job, income stability, and health-care coverage,” the authors write.

The percentage of American workers who lost income due to the pandemic was twice as high for households earning less than $30,000 per year compared with households earning more than $75,000 per year, according to the first survey. The researchers will release results from the third and fourth round of surveys later this month, and results from the fifth and sixth surveys in June.

I reached out to one of the researchers, Briscese, to talk about these findings and future directions for the team’s work. I spoke with him a few weeks ago about a working paper he wrote with another group of researchers showing how people’s expectations of lockdown timeframes in Italy affect their compliance with social distancing measures there.

Media coverage has broadly focused on the health crisis first and foremost, closely followed by the economic consequences of the pandemic — jobs lost, and when and how state economies should reopen. But the new survey results suggest many Americans see the pandemic not through the lens of health and economics, but through their political beliefs and opinion of the proper role of government.

“That is one thing I would hope journalists would pick up more on,” Briscese says. “We are debating a lot about health versus the economy, and what are the right solutions. [The general public] are not seeing it that way.”

The conversation that follows has been lightly edited for clarity.

Clark Merrefield: This is a panel survey. Can you explain what that means and the advantages of this type of survey?

Guglielmo Briscese

Guglielmo Briscese: This is a longitudinal wave panel. We follow the same people over time. In multiple ways, this is different from cross-sectional surveys where you do it repeatedly and with the same frequency, but you have different people. The advantage of following the same people is it allows you to see if any change in any of the perceptions or preferences is caused by any specific factor. We have done four waves that were implemented on a weekly basis, so the first four weeks of April. And we will have one wave in May and one in June and then, ideally, one closer to the [presidential] election.

The big research question is whether this unprecedented global pandemic — this once-in-a-generation type of event — changes Americans or not. There are a lot of studies on what Americans think is the right thing to do. Some early articles, some opinion columns, started at the beginning talking about the pandemic as a global equalizer to change people’s views on certain issues, like universal health care or job stability or the importance of having a more globalized, connected world. The question is, is the pandemic going to be an equalizer or will it exacerbate preexisting differences and frictions — or is it going to be the same? There is the scenario where no matter what huge event occurs, things just don’t change.

We are hoping to answer this question at the end of this big project. We’re curious which of these three scenarios America is going to face. If we do see any change, we are hoping to unpack the mechanisms that led to those changes. Is it because someone close to you got infected or died from the virus? Is anyone close to you an essential worker? Have you suffered an income loss? In what ways is this pandemic impacting your own life — and whether that changes your views.

CM: The research team you’re on recently posted selected results from the first two waves. What were you exploring in the first wave, and was there anything that surprised you?

GB: The purpose of the first wave was to collect baseline data. We wanted to have a snapshot of these 1,000-plus people we are going to become best friends with over the next few months. We wanted to know who are they, what do they think, what challenges they’re facing now. So the purpose of the first wave was this snapshot of this representative sample of Americans at this specific point in time, which is the beginning of the pandemic.

We saw at that early stage that it had already hit Americans disproportionately. A lot of scholars and economists have talked about this, how inequality in the U.S. is an issue from a factual point of view and also from a perceived inequality point of view. In this survey, we see quite clearly if you are low-income in the first week of the pandemic, you were much more likely to be economically impacted by the pandemic. People earning under $15,000 per year were twice as likely to incur financial losses from the pandemic. That shift is already telling the story that the pandemic is exacerbating preexisting inequalities. So, if you don’t have savings for rainy days, this pandemic was already hitting you pretty hard.

The other interesting thing is that this is not just about inequality of the economic impact, but also emotional well-being. Lower-income Americans are more worried about losing their jobs, and affording a mortgage, and more worried about not being able to afford health care. That is probably quite unique to the American context. We saw lots of newspaper articles and blog posts about how [the pandemic] was going to have disproportionate impact on poorer Americans. So, the first wave of the longitudinal survey allowed us to see that and quantify that.

CM: One thing I thought was interesting from the first survey wave was that even among the 20% or so of participants who disapproved of a national coordinated response to the pandemic, there was a clear partisan divide about why they disapproved. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in April suggested other states send ventilators to his state, and he would reciprocate as the virus spread west — essentially advocating for a “centralized resource allocation model,” as you and your co-authors put it. Your team found that Democrats were more likely to disapprove of such a model because they don’t trust the federal government. Republicans were more likely to disapprove because they don’t trust other state governments.  

GB: This is something we wanted to look at for the first wave — again, is America becoming more connected, more centralized, or not? Is it better to have a centralized approach to the pandemic or not? And what does it mean to have a centralized system? France has the most centralized system. They have hospitals almost entirely governed by their federal government. In the U.S., by contrast, you have states and even cities that manage that.

And Cuomo said, “We don’t have enough ventilators and staff. There are a bunch of states out there in the U.S. not being affected. Send us your ventilators. Let us save lives. And once we sort it out, we’ll send them back to you.” We thought that was interesting because this is very different from the health care system in the U.S. So we asked Americans if they would support something like that. Would you be in favor of your state lending ventilators to a state in need? Then, would you be willing to take on patients from other states? We found a large amount of Americans would be in support of that.

We wanted to see what is driving these 18% to 20% of people who are quite against such a policy. What we found was that institutional trust plays a large role. The Democrats don’t trust that a centralized system will work because they don’t trust the federal government. And Republicans don’t trust other state governments. This is an interesting case where trust in institutions and politics can change. We are starting to unpack where there is a mismatch between your own political views and your governor’s policy. The thing to keep in mind is most Americans were in favor of these policies, which are more similar to a European system.

CM: What did you find in the second wave?

GB: The thing that led us to the second wave was the political divide. There is quite broad support for these lockdown measures. We are going to look back in a few years at these times as [being] crazy. We put democracy on pause and standby. We allowed a lot of our individual freedoms to be ceased. We decided to give up a little of our individual freedom for the greater good. This is what economists would call a “public good experiment.” We all sacrifice a little bit so we are all better off.

So what we see is that Americans are willing to accept these individual sacrifices. But we do see even though there is broad support, there is a political divide. Democrats are significantly more likely to support these policies compared with Republicans. Why is that? Is it because your political affiliation leads you to support a certain policy or another? But we found a good portion of the difference is driven by support of the president or support in [news] media. If you trust the media and you are a Republican, you are slightly more likely to support the lockdown. If you are Republican and trust the president, you are more likely to be against the lockdown. Trust in media is quite crucial.

CM: Infectious disease experts say contact tracing will be critical to returning to some sense of normalcy, in particular digital contact tracing like through a smartphone app. You controlled for age, income, political preference, education and trust in media and other institutions, and you still found differences by gender and race in support for such an app where people might have to share personal health information.

GB: These results came out of somewhat successful tracing efforts like in South Korea and Singapore, which have very different cultures and governments and sense of civic duty from the U.S. Countries like Australia have experimented with these applications, where they have a much higher trust in government. But in Italy, it’s been less successful. The reactions from the general public and press are less supportive. So in the U.S., the question is, how willing are you to reopen the economy as soon as possible? And based on that, how much of your individual freedom are you willing to give up to go back to your normal life?’

We see a clear political divide when it comes to Americans on whether the economy should open as soon as possible, or have these measures in place as long as needed. We thought that if you are in favor of opening the economy as soon as possible — even if you don’t believe the coronavirus is a hoax — you may be willing to trade going back to normalcy for an app. And we see that’s not the case. If you think the economy should reopen as soon as possible, you don’t want to compromise the way in which the government should reopen the economy. The political divide and trust in media play the most significant role, and that is after controlling for variables.

I wouldn’t read too much into the breakdown by gender and race differences, since we are dealing with a small sample. But the politics and trust in media are consistently the most significant variables.

CM: What questions or angles do you want journalists to take away from the research findings so far?

GB: One thing I’ve been thinking about is that I would think conversations should be about the economy and health. First of all, we should address the health emergency. And then, after that, let’s debate about the economy. What’s the recovery plan? What’s the right level of unemployment benefits?  All these are questions economists can talk about and disagree [on]. And the way we tackle the health emergency management is something that health economists and virologists and epidemiologists can argue about. That’s what we read in the news. These experts say one thing and other experts say another thing.

But it seems most people don’t see the pandemic through those lenses. It’s really about who do you vote for and what media do you consume and do you trust the media? Almost everyone will know a person who has been impacted somehow by the crisis. You know someone who died or recovered. The more people are infected, the closer the pandemic gets, and yet people don’t change their views.

We are seeing even though Italians, just like Americans, are quite compliant with these measures, the level of compliance is dependent on communications. Whether the government communicates [stay-at-home] end dates in an effective way — if I set a clear deadline and you expect them to be lifted and then I take you by surprise [and extend the deadline], people drop their willingness to comply. If you think something is wrong just because of politics, it doesn’t matter whether people are dying — you are going to stick to what you believe and ignore all other evidence. That is one thing I would hope journalists would pick up more on. We are debating a lot about health versus the economy, and what are the right solutions. [The general public] are not seeing it that way. It really seems politics and [personal views on] the role of government are crucial.

Another question that will be interesting to unpack is, where do beliefs come from? Do I follow [television host Sean] Hannity on Fox News because he is confirming my existing beliefs, or is he shifting my views on the world? What’s the cause and effect there? Am I going to believe what the president says no matter what because I think he’s right? Or, if [Donald] Trump changed his communication strategy and took a completely different approach, would he be betrayed by his hardcore supporters? Would he have the power to change their minds and views? Ultimately, that’s democracy. If you think people have strong beliefs that can’t be changed, there will always be an incentive for a politician to exploit those views and become the spokesperson and representative for those views. But if these views can be changed, then the media plays a much bigger role.

A [working paper] by [University of Chicago economics professor Leonardo Bursztyn] looks at people who watch Hannity and those who watch [television host] Tucker Carlson on Fox News. I wasn’t involved in that research. But, basically, he is saying that Tucker Carlson from the beginning warned Americans that the virus was real and they had to be careful. Whereas Hannity said at the beginning that it was a hoax and fake news and Americans should go about their lives as usual. Then he changed over time. What these researchers show is those who watch Hannity more than Carlson died at a higher rate.

CM: How many more survey waves will there be and when are they coming out?

GB: We have now completed four waves. We will release some results from waves three and four later in May. Most likely, our next blog post will focus on gender. One thing we started to see is that gender is also a great source of division on how the pandemic is affecting people, and child care responsibilities are playing a big role. Women who have child care responsibilities are struggling more now. And we are seeing, potentially, if there is a non-coordinated reopening of the economy — like in Italy, where the economy opened but schools didn’t — that could have a disproportionate impact on employment status of women. Chances are, women are going to have to either change jobs or reduce their working hours and reduce salaries and find other solutions. That is quite interesting because, again, the way in which countries choose to reopen their economies will have consequences for years to come. Once you have addressed the health emergency, the way in which you reopen the economy is going to have consequences that last for a long time.

Wave four is going to be about whether anything changed in Americans’ views of the country over the first month of the pandemic. This will be the first stress test of our hypothesis research question. If things have changed, was one month all it took? If not, why have things not changed? Is the pandemic just reinforcing prior beliefs, or is it changing Americans? Are they more likely to support universal basic income, or universal health care and converge on trust in the government?

And then wave five will be in May and wave six will be in June. Sometime toward the end of the summer, we are hoping to unpack more. If things have changed, why have they changed? Was it because the pandemic touched you closely somehow? Or, again, it could be that nothing changed at all.

Check out our coronavirus-related resources, including tips on covering biomedical research preprints and why journalists shouldn’t use the term “patient zero” in their coverage.

We’ve also pulled together research on topics such as consumer spending in the wake of the pandemic and how public health messaging might explain why the coronavirus appears to have a disparate impact on racial and ethnic minorities.

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