Great job, California! Your high, continued support for social distancing and sheltering-in-place have helped reduce COVID-19’s spread and lay the groundwork for state and federal plans to slowly re-open society.
But not everyone is celebrating. Rallies protesting stay-at-home measures recently occurred in several state capitals, including Sacramento, and in smaller California locales like Encinitas, Huntington Beach and San Clemente.
Given the rallies’ focus, it is unsurprising that many protesters neither practiced social distancing nor wore masks. Protesters’ signs and other symbols — clothing, flags — revealed ideological factions distinct from the shared objection to stay-at-home orders including anti-vaccine and pro-gun rights activist, and COVID-19 pandemic denialists and conspiracy theorists.
Appropriate coverage of these rallies by the press is important. A key tenet of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics is to “provide context” and “take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify” a story. But doing so requires overcoming challenges that the press and public must be mindful of.
As academics who study anti-vaccine activism regarding proposed legislation, we offer four lessons for responsible media coverage of these new stay-at-home rallies. Attention to these issues can ensure the public has a complete, accurate accounting of such events.
1. How Big Is the Protest? Many events in California have been small — fewer than 300 people. Yet, like anti-vaccine rallies, photos and videos can misrepresent crowds as larger than they actually are, especially when photographers capture up-close action. Images of car-based protests can amplify this effect since vehicles occupy more space than people. Therefore, it is essential that any protest coverage includes a crowd estimate, even if a ballpark figure.
2. How Representative Are the Protesters? Extensive coverage risks mis-portraying protesters as a representative sample of the public. This can create public misunderstanding and mislead politicians to believe they must support these groups, unaware that they represent a sliver of constituents. Though each protester may represent multiple, similarly-minded citizens who stayed home, that is also not always the case.
Also, with stay-at-home orders, more people could attend such rallies than in usual times. For example, a recent Monmouth University poll found 81% of Americans believe the outbreak measures taken by their state government have either been appropriate or not gone far enough. Therefore, protest coverage should include data showing real views of the public.
3. False Balance Coverage? False balance is the inaccurate portrayal of “two sides of a story” as equally valid. As with anti-vaccine protests, political or general assignment journalists — not science journalists — often cover shelter-in-place protests. These reporters may adeptly present the political context, but miss public health aspects, such as debunking science denialists’ untrue statements. The resulting coverage may end up presenting a false balance instead of clearly distinguishing scientific facts from protesters’ opinions. Therefore, protest coverage should include correction and input from public health experts.
4. Who’s Involved? Finally, coverage should discuss the event organizers and their broader political goals. Many seemingly “grassroots” citizen rallies are sponsored and promoted by organizations with broader, alternative — even sometimes profit-minded — goals. During recent New Jersey vaccine legislation protests, news coverage presented angry protesters as popular opposition, even though national anti-vaccine figures and organizations helped lead protests, and offered legislation testimony. For some shelter-in-place protests, journalists have highlighted the organizers. For example, NBC discoveredthat a family-run network of pro-gun groups was behind five of the largest Facebook groups that promoted state-specific anti-quarantine rallies in a cookie-cutter fashion.
Some may argue that the press should not cover these rallies if they are so small and unrepresentative. But protest is as important an American tradition as freedom of the press, and it is journalists’ responsibility to inform the public of even small groups’ discontent. However, information must be presented in a contextual, fact-based way. The public has a right to know who the protesters really are, how many they really are and what they have to gain from their protests.
Richard M. Carpiano is a professor of public policy and sociology at the University of California, Riverside. Dorit Rubinstein-Reiss is a professor of law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law. They wrote this commentary for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.