The emergence of COVID-19 in the US: A public health and political communication crisis

Sarah E. Gollust, Rebekah H. Nagler, Erika Franklin Fowler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

111 Scopus citations


The coronavirus public health crisis is also a political-communication and health-communication crisis. In this article, the authors describe the key communication-related phenomena and evidence of concerning effects manifested in the United States during the initial response to the pandemic. The authors outline the conditions of communication about coronavirus that contribute to deleterious outcomes, including partisan cueing, conflicting science, downplayed threats, emotional arousal, fragmented media, and Trump’s messaging. The authors suggest these have contributed to divergent responses by media sources, partisan leaders, and the public alike, leading to different attitudes and beliefs as well as varying protective actions taken by members of the public to reduce their risk. In turn, these divergent communication phenomena will likely amplify geographic variation in and inequities with COVID-19 disease outcomes. The authors conclude with some suggestions for future research, particularly surrounding communication about health inequity and strategies for reducing partisan divergence in views of public health issues in the future.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)967-981
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of health politics, policy and law
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Sarah E. Gollust is associate professor of health policy and management at the University of Minnesota and associate director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Interdisciplinary Research Leaders. Her research examines the influence of the media and public opinion in the health policy process, the dissemination of research into policy making, and the politics of health policy. Her research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Russell Sage Foundation, and the American Cancer Society.

Funding Information:
Erika Franklin Fowler is associate professor of government at Wesleyan University and codirector of the Wesleyan Media Project. Her research examines the content and effect of media messaging in electoral and health policy contexts. Her interdisciplinary work has been published in political science, communication, law/policy, and medical journals, and her research in recent years has been funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Russell Sage Foundation, and the American Cancer Society.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 by Duke University Press.


  • COVID-19
  • Communication
  • Media
  • Politics
  • Public opinion

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article


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