President Donald Trump has resumed his campaign rallies after his COVID-19 diagnosis and he has said he will put on at least one campaign rally daily in a new city through Election Day. Local media have a responsibility to inform viewers of the dangers of attending such likely superspreader events given the multiple infections and outbreaks tied to past Trump events. But the TV news stations in Orlando, Florida, where Trump held his rally on October 12, failed miserably to fulfill this responsibility.
Trump and many others at the White House became ill following a late September event held in the Rose Garden to celebrate his nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, which White House Coronavirus Task Force member Dr. Anthony Fauci called a “superspreader event.” More than two dozen people -- including first lady Melania Trump, some Republican senators, Trump’s senior political advisers, White House communications staffers, and members of the building’s housekeeping staff -- also tested positive in this White House outbreak.
But just over a week after he announced his diagnosis on Twitter, Trump decided that it was time for him to go campaigning again, no matter the risks to others. He and his campaign announced on October 9 that he would resume his rallies with an event in Sanford, Florida, at the Orlando International Airport. So far, at least seven major news organizations have decided it is too dangerous for their reporters to accompany the president on Air Force One, given the lack of proper coronavirus precautions on the aircraft.
In light of these developments, one would expect Orlando local media to explain to their viewers that such events in the past have been dangerous to attendees because they have flouted sensible coronavirus precautions. These events can even turn deadly as may have been the case with former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, who died of COVID-19 following his attendance at a Trump rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which also likely worsened a local outbreak there.
The Orlando Sentinel explained this in an October 9 article on the rally announcement:
Critics have also attacked Trump for months for holding large, sometimes indoor rallies amid the pandemic, including an event in Tulsa in June that local health officials said contributed to a spike in coronavirus cases. At least nine cases have been linked to a Minnesota rally from mid-September, according to Minnesota Public Radio, including two hospitalizations and one in intensive care.
But unfortunately, every single instance of TV news coverage of the rally from the local corporate broadcast affiliates failed to mention any of the coronavirus cases or outbreaks tied to Trump’s past events.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the Kinetiq video database in the Orlando television market for NBC affiliate WESH, ABC affiliate WFTV, CBS affiliate WKMG, and Fox Broadcasting Co. affiliate WOFL. We found 66 instances of coverage of Trump’s upcoming rally in the three-day period between its announcement on October 9 and when the rally doors opened on October 12. Not once in these 66 instances did the stations inform their viewers that similar past Trump events had sickened attendees.
The vast majority of the coverage was similar to this example from WKMG -- an announcement that the event was scheduled, an update on the president’s health, and little else about the rally.
In fact, only a mere 17 reports on the rally, or 26%, mentioned the campaign’s coronavirus precautions in any way. Several of those mentions came from a local Republican Party official interviewed by Fox affiliate WOFL, who assured that mask use would be encouraged at the rally even though he is not a part of the Trump campaign. (Apparently the Trump campaign didn’t even announce the coronavirus precautions until the day of the rally -- a WFTV reporter early in the morning of October 12 said there was “so far no word if masks are required” and, as it turns out, masks still weren’t required.) Following the rally, the Orlando Sentinel reported that the crowd was “mostly maskless.”
Local media outlets, which are generally trusted more by their viewers, must do a better job of informing their audiences that they can contract a deadly disease at Trump’s events. WOFL quoted a local health official to warn that coronavirus infection is possible at these events. But local news reporters and anchors should also give context from Trump’s past events.
And Trump is just getting started. After Sanford, he went to Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Today, he is going to Des Moines, Iowa. On Thursday, he will go to Greenville, North Carolina. On Friday, he will return to Florida in Ocala, then go to Macon, Georgia. And on Sunday he will be in Muskegon, Michigan, and Janesville, Wisconsin.
People in all of these cities are at risk if they attend Trump’s rallies. Their local news organizations must properly inform them of this risk -- at a minimum by pointing out that people have gotten ill after attending his events in the past.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the Kinetiq video database in the Orlando, Florida, television market for the broadcast affiliates of ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox Broadcasting Co. for Trump’s name in close proximity of the words “rally”, “event,” “Sanford,” “Orlando,” or “airport” between 4 p.m. EDT on October 9, when the Trump campaign announced the rally, and 4 p.m. EDT on October 12, 2020, when the doors to the rally opened.
We counted as segments instances when Trump’s Sanford rally was the stated topic of discussion, when it was mentioned at the beginning of a news report on Trump’s health or campaign activity, when the specific time and location of the rally was announced, or when two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussed this rally with one another. We did not include teasers for upcoming segments about this rally or passing mentions of it in segments about other topics. We also excluded nationally syndicated programs.
We reviewed segments for whether they mentioned the precautions that the Trump campaign were taking against the spread of the coronavirus at the rally, or whether they mentioned that Trump’s past campaign or White House events have led to coronavirus infections and/or outbreaks.