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Political Rhetoric in High-Stakes Times

Political scientist Shana Gadarian discusses the differences in COVID-19 language among political parties and offers advice on changing the tone.

Shana Gadarian portrait read her story

It’s hard to escape the constant barrage of news about the coronavirus pandemic. According to Shana Gadarian, associate professor of political science in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, the heightened coverage shows a contrast in the way press briefings from governors, the White House and news networks are reporting on the pandemic.

Gadarian and colleagues from the University of California, Irvine, and Cornell University recently published "Partisanship, Health Behavior, and Policy Attitudes in the Early Stages of the COVID-19 Pandemic" based on their research into the politics of the U.S. response to the coronavirus. “Partisanship is determining how citizens respond to COVID-19, and this divided response puts every American at risk,” Gadarian and her colleagues write after surveying 3,000 American citizens. The survey collected data on health behavior, attitudes and opinions about how to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. In short, they found that partisanship is a consistent predictor of how people are responding to the pandemic.

When COVID-19 cases started appearing in the United States earlier this winter, there was a stark contrast in the way Democrats and Republicans initially responded. Gadarian and her team found evidence that Republicans are more likely to follow the president than their Democratic counterparts. The survey showed that Republicans were less concerned than Democrats about the pandemic yet were more likely to support policies that restrict trade and movement across borders as a response to it. They also estimated the deaths from COVID-19 to be lower than Democratic survey respondents had estimated. Those views are consistent with President Trump’s messaging at the beginning of March that the virus was only as serious as the flu and would disappear. Democratic respondents, by contrast, reported that they reacted to COVID-19 by altering their personal health behaviors and supporting policies that promote testing and treatment.

“The person with the largest megaphone in the country repeatedly downplayed the threat of the virus, and those views were echoed on some of the more conservative news outlets by people who share partisanship and ideology,” explains Gadarian. “In contrast, many Democrats said early on COVID-19 was a problem and recommended following medical experts’ advice. There are big differences, and you can see the mass public reflecting those differences.”

Gadarian says she was somewhat surprised at the size of the partisan gap when it comes to concerns about the virus and behavior. She attributes this disparity to the White House leadership and conservative media outlets minimizing the threat of COVID-19 and the advice from experts.

Gadarian and her colleagues note there has been a shift in how traditionally conservative news outlets have covered the pandemic. “There’s still more skepticism about the stay-at-home orders, which is reflected in the recent protests,” Gadarian says. “Now there is more focus on the economy and going back to work.”

Although the federal government struggled with early messaging, that was not the case across all the states. Many governors—regardless of party affiliation—quickly backed health experts working to contain the virus. Governors have given daily press briefings to update the public on efforts to flatten the curve. These state briefings tend to emphasize local conditions, whereas the federal briefings talk about efforts to combat the virus in more general terms.

Many American citizens are anxious about the coronavirus, due in part to mixed messages coming from the federal government. To help ease public anxiety, Gadarian suggests political leaders take a step back and defer to public health experts as the point people in communication efforts. “When you hear health experts saying one thing and the head of your political party saying another, that’s a troubling kind of thing to decide,” explains Gadarian. “People are more trusting in expertise and want more messages from medical experts than political leaders.”

For instance, the authors of “Lessons of Risk Communication and Health Promotion – West Africa and United States” concluded that during the 2014-16 Ebola virus epidemic in West Africa, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) helped increase awareness and coordinated communication efforts with multiple international and domestic partners. The study found that acknowledging the knowns and unknowns is key to effective risk communication. Through the partnership, health promotion and behavioral knowledge were integrated into the response, heightening knowledge of Ebola’s risk and promoting actions to stop its spread.

Gadarian says the federal government also needs to be clearer and more empathetic about the loss of life from the virus, which has caused nearly 90,000 deaths to date. The government must continue educating people about the importance of staying at home and the risks of not social distancing. The messaging, says Gadarian, needs to incorporate more positive storytelling about lives that have been saved and focus less on the death statistics.

“Personalization is really important for people to understand the impact of what they’re doing and that it does matter,” says Gadarian. “This is about collective behavior and about helping the most vulnerable.”

Lisa Maresca

This story was published on .


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