Ceci Freed / Media Matters

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Corporate TV news largely ignored the relationship between environmental justice and COVID-19

Only 7% of segments linked air pollution to higher coronavirus mortalities for communities of color

In the midst of wall-to-wall TV news coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 65,000 Americans, there was a period of intense reporting on the much higher death rates for people of color, especially Black Americans.

But missing from the coverage of disproportionate minority deaths were discussions about how air pollution worsens COVID-19 outcomes and the Trump administration’s ongoing assault on environmental protections will make communities of color more vulnerable to the virus.

A Media Matters analysis found that during a four-week period, only 7% of the 239 broadcast and cable TV news segments about the disparate death rates from COVID-19 connected them to air pollution or other environmental determinants. None of the 31 segments that aired on corporate broadcast TV news programs made the link.

Media Matters analyzed the morning, evening, and weekend news programs for ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC from March 30-April 27, 2020.

  • Only 7% of segments about racially disparate death rates from COVID-19 connected them environmental determinants such as air pollution

  • Over a four-week period, from the end of March to the end of April, corporate TV news programs aired 239 segments on disproportionate death rates among people of color from COVID-19. Only 7% of segments mentioned air pollution or poor air quality as a potential cause. 

  • Broadcast and cable TV news segments about racially disparate death rates from COVID-19 rarely connected them to air pollution
  • Corporate broadcast TV — ABC, CBS, and NBC — aired a combined 31 segments across their morning and evening news programs. CBS accounted for 65% of the broadcast TV news segments. None of the segments that aired on broadcast TV news connected COVID-19 mortality to air pollution.

  • Broadcast TV news segments that connected COVID-19 mortality to air pollution
  • The 24-hour major cable TV networks — CNN, Fox News and MSNBC — aired a combined 208 segments on the disproportionate death rates of people of color from COVID-19. Sixteen of the segments linked air pollution to higher COVID-19 death rates for communities of color, although only 2 aired on cable prime-time programming.

  • Cable TV news segments that connected COVID-19 mortality to air pollution
  • Only one segment contextualized the Trump administration’s rollbacks of environmental safeguards by discussing research on air pollution and COVID-19’s disproportionate death rates for minorities.

  • As minority deaths from COVID-19 increased drastically, corporate TV news’ coverage rarely mentioned air pollution as a factor

  • Beginning on April 7, four days after ProPublica published a story about disproportionate COVID-19 death rates in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and a few days after reports came out that Black people in Chicago, Louisiana, and Michigan were also dying from COVID-19 in disproportionate numbers, broadcast and cable TV news ramped up their coverage of the virus’s death toll in communities of color. 

    April 7 to April 12 was the peak of broadcast and cable TV news coverage about how COVID-19 was disproportionately harming minorities. During this period, they combined for 138 segments. Among broadcast networks, CBS led with seven, followed by ABC with six, and NBC with two. CNN led the cable news networks with 65, followed by MSNBC with 46, and Fox News with 12. In fact, more than half (58%) of all coverage of this ongoing crisis in minority communities during the four-week study aired during this six-day period.

    The vast majority of these segments mentioned at least a few of the comorbidities from which Black Americans suffer disproportionately that increase the risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19. Unfortunately, nearly all of these comorbidity rundowns failed to connect the much higher minority death rates to specific environmental causes such as air pollution. Only five cable segments (4% of all segments) that aired during the six days when coverage was at its peak mentioned air pollution as a contributing factor in higher COVID deaths among people of color. MSNBC led with three, followed by CNN with two.

    These glaring omissions demonstrate that environmental justice never became part of this story, even though scientists and medical professionals started identifying a probable link between air pollution and worse COVID-19 outcomes throughout March and early April, and a Harvard study published on April 5 found that people who lived in areas with high levels of fine-particulate pollution are 15% more likely to die from COVID-19. The New York Times broke this story on April 7, the same day that TV news coverage of disproportionate COVID-19 death rates peaked. 

    Predating the COVID-19 research on air pollution are multiple studies that found minority communities bear the burden of corporate fossil-fuel pollution and state-sanctioned environmental racism. An EPA study published in 2018 found that people of color in the U.S. are exposed to more air pollution than white people are, with Black people experiencing the highest levels of air pollutants. Air pollution has also been linked to comorbidities such as Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and respiratory disease, which are all major risk factors for COVID-19 patients.

    During this peak in coverage, the April 9 episode of MSNBC’s The 11th Hour with Brian Williams was the only prime-time show -- and one of the few shows, period -- to air a segment that connected environmental injustice to higher coronavirus death rates among people of color. Host Brian Williams’ conversation with Dr. Ebony Hilton -- associate professor of anesthesiology at the University of Virginia School of Medicine -- touched on how environmental racism fuels “chronic illnesses like asthma and chronic bronchitis.” 

    From the April 9 episode of The 11th Hour with Brian Williams:

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  • Corporate TV news’ coverage of race and COVID-19 dropped off without shows making environmental justice part of the story

  • Broadcast TV news mostly stopped covering COVID-19’s disparate impacts on communities of color after April 12. From April 13-27, broadcast news shows ran 12 segments on race and COVID-19. CBS led with 10 segments, followed by ABC and NBC with one each. Again, none of these segments connected minority coronavirus deaths to environmental determinants such as air pollution.

    Cable news continued to report on the story during this time, but its coverage also dropped substantially. From April 13-27, cable news shows ran 75 segments on the racial disparities in COVID-19 deaths. CNN led with 38 segments, MSNBC followed with 32, and Fox News had five. Ten cable news segments during this period mentioned air pollution as a contributing factor in higher COVID deaths. CNN and MSNBC each had five.

    On April 15, CNN’s The Lead with Jake Tapper became the only show to explicitly cite the Harvard study, a little more than a week after The New York Times published its article about the study. Tapper referenced it to make the connection between air pollution and the racial disparity in COVID-19 mortalities.

    From the April 15 episode of The Lead with Jake Tapper:

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  • On April 23, MSNBC Live with Katy Tur reported on the Trump administration’s environmental rollbacks. During the segment, her guest, former energy and climate aide Jake Levine, discussed the connections between COVID-19 and air pollution and then explained how communities of color are being disparately harmed by both. This was the only segment that connected the Trump administration's environmental rollbacks to the research showing how air pollution would exacerbate the harm COVID-19 has on communities of color.

    From the April 23 episode of MSNBC Live with Katy Tur:

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  • Despite these, among a few other, notable instances, corporate TV news mostly failed to make environmental justice a key part of this story; broadcast and cable TV news rarely homed in on the research indicating that air pollution, among other systemic inequities, would likely make COVID-19 far more deadly for Black, Hispanic, and indigenous communities. The overwhelming media response to minorities’ disproportionately high death rates from COVID-19 was silence, followed by credulity, ending with silence.

  • Corporate TV news missed the early warning signs for communities of color

  • Between March 30 and April 6, broadcast and cable TV news shows ran only 14 segments about COVID-19’s potential to devastate Black and brown communities. Among broadcast networks, CBS led with three segments, followed by ABC with one. MSNBC led the cable news networks with five, followed by CNN with four, and Fox with one.

    Early narratives insisted that “coronavirus doesn't discriminate.” But the virus’s disproportionately harmful impact on communities of color across the country was an entirely foreseeable consequence of the United States’ legacy of racism, economic exploitation, and environmental injustice.

    Public health experts and environmental justice advocates were warning in March that systemic inequities could exacerbate COVID-19’s harm to Black and Latino communities. Not only did minorities have preexisting health disparities well before the COVID-19 pandemic, but Latino and Black people also make up a larger share of “essential workers.”

    By early April, it became quickly clear that COVID-19 was an environmental justice story, as well. Grist published an article on April 2 about a COVID-19 vulnerability map being used to determine the communities most at risk from the outbreak; the findings were sobering:

  • A side-by-side comparison of Jvion’s vulnerability map with the EPA’s Environmental Justice Screen (EJScreen) suggests a stark correlation between a community’s proximity to industrial facilities and its projected risk of severe COVID-19 outcomes.

  • During this initial period of coverage, only one segment mentioned air pollution as a risk factor for minority communities impacted by COVID-19. The April 4 episode of MSNBC’s PoliticsNation, which was one of the first shows to air a substantive report on the data suggesting that COVID-19 was killing Black Americans at much higher rates than white Americans, identified environmental racism as a contributing factor.

  • Coverage of minority death rates from COVID-19 must prioritize societal factors such as environmental justice instead of Black Americans’ personal behavior

  • Although there has been little reporting on how long-term exposure to air pollution could be a main driver of COVID-19’s disproportionate death rates, corporate TV news aired multiple segments where the personal behavior of Black Americans also became a focus.  

    One of the most egregious examples occurred during CNN’s April 18 special, “The Color of COVID: Coronavirus's Wrath on America's Minority Communities,” which was hosted by CNN host Don Lemon and CNN contributor Van Jones. Although the special attempted to substantively answer why Blacks and Hispanics had higher death rates from COVID-19, not only did the discussion fail to mention the growing body of research on air pollution and coronavirus, but the two hosts and their guest, former NBA player Charles Barkley, blamed Black people’s supposed lifestyle choices.

    From the April 18 airing of CNN’s “The Color of COVID:”

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    VAN JONES (HOST): I love what you're saying. I love what you're saying because I think it has been a little bit of a false choice in this conversation that's been building in the Black community. Is it the system's fault or is it individual Black people and our culture's fault?

    DON LEMON (HOST): It's all of the above.

    JONES: And it's all of the above. I think ...

    CHARLES BARKLEY (FORMER NBA PLAYER): So I -- first of all, I know Don -- Don, first of all, you've been fantastic for years, and I know you got some blowback from the Black community, and Van, you have been amazing in the whole political process. But any time we say something about Black people, we get blowback. And listen, I am very proud to be Black, always have and always will. But there is personal responsibility. We can -- I can't get fat and obese and then say to myself it's because of systematic racism. I am very aware of systematic racism, but I can't get fat and obese and then say, yeah, the system made me fat. It doesn't work like that.

  • Contrast CNN’s hour-long special with a 10-minute segment from the April 11 episode of Velshi, which featured an in-depth discussion with Poor People’s Campaign co-chair the Rev. William J. Barber, New York Times investigative reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, and Princeton professor and MSNBC contributor Eddie Glaude Jr. Their conversation eschewed personal responsibility narratives and focused on how historical and current inequities, including environmental racism, explain the devastation that COVID-19 unleashed in low-income communities and communities of color across the country.

    From the April 11 episode of Velshi:

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  • More recently, during the April 26 episode of MSNBC’s Velshi, law professor and civil rights advocate Kimberlé Crenshaw discussed how corporate TV news amplifies personal responsibility narratives for Black people, while being unable to recognize and contextualize the real reasons, including environmental injustice, that explain why COVID-19 is killing higher rates of Black, brown, and indigenous people.

    From the April 26 episode of Velshi:

  • Video file
  • COVID-19 has exposed many barely concealed fault lines across American society, which include a legacy of economic, health, and environmental racism that has made communities of color uniquely vulnerable to a disease that no one is immune from. And reporting on how centuries of historical inequities have led to worse health outcomes for low-income and minority communities is a complex task.

    But there was a story that largely wasn’t told and still needs to be told: an environmental justice story about why those who live in the most polluted areas of the country, who also happen to be mostly Black, are being killed by COVID-19 at a rate of more than twice their population share. And why, amid this pandemic, the Trump administration is rolling back what minimal safeguards exist for the most precarious communities living in the shadow of our nation’s energy and chemical complexes.

    The COVID-19 pandemic is far from over; it’s not too late for broadcast and cable TV news to report consistently on the evidence of air pollution as a driver of COVID-19 mortality in America and across the world.

    As we figure out how COVID-19 will ultimately shape the way we live, developing effective solutions to lower the virus’s disparate impacts requires policymakers and the general public to have a clear and consistent understanding of how environmental factors such as air pollution could explain why the virus is having a disproportionate impact on minority and low-income communities.

    Corporate TV news has demonstrated that it can report on these issues with depth, substance, and context. But a story this important cannot be relegated to non-prime-time hours and podcasts. By covering the environmental justice aspect of COVID-19 with the same consistency and urgency they brought to the disparity in deaths, broadcast and cable news shows would inform their viewers -- especially those most vulnerable to COVID-19 -- that where they live could play as large a factor in their health outcomes from coronavirus than how they live.

  • Methodology

  • Media Matters searched Nexis transcripts and the SnapStream video database service for any variation of the terms “African American,” “Latin,” “low income,” or “immigrant” within close proximity to the terms “coronavirus” or “COVID-19,” for ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC, from March 30-April 27, 2020.