A reasonable person might expect that after President Donald Trump’s campaign rally schedule was delayed by his hospitalization for COVID-19 -- following a reckless and largely mask-free “superspreader” event at the White House -- local news coverage of his upcoming rallies would emphasize any precautions being taken to protect attendees.
But a reasonable person using Facebook to get news from their local TV stations last week was actually three times more likely to learn about the parking and traffic situations at upcoming Trump rallies.
Around the time of Trump’s first post-hospitalization rally in Sanford, Florida -- where local TV news coverage failed to emphasize the health risks of the attendees -- his campaign announced upcoming rallies in multiple cities over the next week, including: Des Moines, Iowa; Greenville, North Carolina; Janesville, Wisconsin; Johnstown, Pennsylvania; Macon, Georgia; and Muskegon, Michigan. A search of Facebook posts by the top local broadcast news stations in these cities revealed that the vast majority of posts covering upcoming rallies failed to mention any concerns related to the coronavirus.
A mere 4 of these stations’ 84 posts -- or 5% -- mentioning their local upcoming Trump rallies discussed any health precautions being taken by the campaign or the rally venue.
Three times as many posts -- 12 out of 84, or about 14% -- focused on parking and traffic situations for the rallies.
Twenty-two of the remaining posts, or about 26% of the total, did mention concerns about the pandemic in some way without discussing public health precautions being taken at the rallies. While some of these posts expressed concerns from medical authorities, several merely reported about billboards which referred to the upcoming rallies as “Trump COVID SuperSpreader Events.”
Though several stories did cover those billboards labeling the rallies a “COVID SuperSpreader Event,” not a single Facebook post -- zero -- from these local news stations’ Facebook pages mentioned that past Trump events had contributed to local spikes in infections or even seemingly created coronavirus outbreaks, such as the late September White House event for Trump’s Supreme Court nominee.
This failure of local news stations' Facebook pages to mention the fact that coronavirus cases have been tied to specific Trump events echoes similar failure of Orlando’s TV news coverage leading up to Trump’s October 12 rally.
Media Matters compiled a list of 24 Facebook pages associated with the local ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox Broadcasting Co. station affiliates in Des Moines, Iowa; Greenville, North Carolina; Janesville, Wisconsin; Johnstown, Pennsylvania; Macon, Georgia; and Muskegon, Michigan.
Using CrowdTangle, we compiled all posts that were shared between October 11 and October 17, 2020, from the list of pages which mentioned the words “Trump” and “rally” in the post’s message or in an included link, article headline, or article description. We verified that posts were about an upcoming rally in the stations' specific coverage areas using post text or article headline. Posts that indicated they were made during or after the rallies were not counted. Our resulting list of examples included 84 posts.
We coded each of the posts for mentions of coronavirus precautions at the rallies; mentions that past Trump events had contributed to local outbreaks; mentions of any coronavirus concerns about the rallies at all; or mentions of parking, road closures, and other traffic concerns related to the rallies.