Mask Use, Media And The Risk of Getting COVID-19

People may wear masks if the media offered a consistent and authentic information about the risks associated with COVID-19

The question of American mask use(or not) has been connected primarily with political leanings claiming that the mandatory use of the mask is an affront to personal liberty and freedom. It might be time now to offer a more consistent and defensible risk narrative which is consistent across media outlets to show that the use of the mask lowers the risk.

There is always some amount of uncertainty about the level of risk from a pandemic, especially since there is little experience with a novel virus. For instance, the Website of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) states, “For most people, the immediate risk of becoming seriously ill from the virus that causes COVID-19 is thought to be low.” The key is how the media interprets “low” and how it is presented to the American media audience. The media narrative of risk shapes the perception of risk posed by the virus, and a change in the risk perception could encourage mask use. There is, however, great variability in the risk narratives presented in the media just as there was confusion over the effectiveness of the mask as I reported in in May.

Some examples help to illustrate the variations in the representation of the risk from the virus. For instance, a May 2020 article in the New York Times offered a complicated analysis of the risk of being infected and dying with statements such as, “roughly twice as likely to die as you would have been if you were serving in the U.S. armed forces in Afghanistan throughout 2010, a particularly deadly year.” Such a statement may create a narrative that there is a significant risk without stating it in a simple way. On the other hand, 28 days into the announcement of “stay at home” orders in the USA, Laura Ingraham of Fox News reminded the viewers watching her show that they were living in a false “fear” because the experts were wrong, essentially stating the risk from the virus was not as bad as was reported in other media outlets. In another instance, on May 15, CNN broadcast a story where a biologist explained that risk is amplified when someone is indoors. To add to the confusion on June 11, many American broadcasters carried the story from the World Health Organization (WHO) which seemed to suggest that risk of certain kinds of transmission was low as shown by CBS News.

The matter is further complicated by the fact that there are other narratives ranging from a “doomsday” story that the virus will bring an end to the World to stories that would argue that the entire virus episode is part of a larger conspiracy to subjugate people and everything about the virus is indeed a hoax. Neither may be backed by evidence, but these representations of the virus, and the associated risk, also plays into the risk narrative.

It is possible to list many more instances of differential coverage of the risk of the virus. There are two things that emerge. First, the story is confusing without definitive answers about the risk of getting infected. Unlike many other stories, there are too many “loose ends” and unresolved tensions. The audience does not get a clear picture of the level of the risk. Second, early in the days of the virus, different media outlets chose their own perspective on risk and did not veer from their point of views in the stories. These perspectives were often politically motivated with a Presidential election looming on the horizon. The risk from the virus was folded into political ideology with some media stories minimizing the risk and thus implicitly encouraging behavior that other media outlets would represent as risky behavior.

Consequently, depending on which narrative was most believable to an individual, the person adopted a personal risk narrative based on what media outlets they found trustworthy. This narrative create a “risk perception” which in turn could drive action — such as the decision to wear a mask.

In a 2011 report the Harvard Medical School pointed to the complex nature of risk perception saying, “Risk perception is rarely entirely rational. Instead, people assess risks using a mixture of cognitive skills.” Similarly, a 2014 article in the Environmental Health Perspective reminds that risk perception is deeply personal and shaped by numerous factors including the exposure to the risk narratives that surround the individual. In the case of COVID-19 there are multiple narratives to chose from and the perception would depend on the narratives selected. Those whose risk perception is low will most likely choose not to use the mask.

This is not a theoretical argument because there is some emerging evidence about the variability in risk perception and mask use as demonstrated in the June 15 report in the MarketWatch article, “Men are less likely to believe they’ll be seriously affected by COVID-19.” Such a belief creates a reduced risk perception leading to behavior which would be considered risky by those with an elevated risk perception.

Two things are urgently needed: 1) the mediated narrative has to be consistent across different media outlets offering an authentic representation of the risk, and 2) the narrative has to be based in data that is trustworthy and believable. These are difficult challenges when the audience has become wary of what media outlets report, but a concerted effort on the part of the media could lead to greater compliance with the mask, which is a key recommendation of the CDC.

My research and teaching interests include media and technology and its impact on everyday life available at

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