Corona news coverage: How news selection influences our attitudes about COVID-19 issues


People show a tendency to select news that is consistent with their own attitudes. Using the much-discussed COVID-19 pandemic as an example, this study shows that such selective media use can lead to a hardening of one's own views.

Article by Adriana Sofia Palloks (✉

The COVID-19 pandemic can be approached from different angles in the context of news reporting. When journalists write a news story, they select certain aspects, emphasizing some while leaving others out. This approach can give news consumers a specific, possibly limited perspective on the topic and is referred to as the "framing effect" in communication science. The study conducted by communication scientists at the University of Vienna, which has already been cited several times in the press, examined the influence of news selection and consumption on COVID-19-related beliefs. The study was conducted in several stages: It started with a content analysis to identify COVID-19 "frames" (i.e., framings of the topic or specific perspectives on COVID-19) in the commentary program "Der Wegscheider" on ServusTV and Günther Mayr's analyses on ORF; subsequently, an online survey asked 1,176 study participants about the respective programs (frequency of use) and about their Corona views. Finally, a web-based experiment with about 800 participants investigated whether the mechanism of "preference-based reinforcement" underlies the framing effect. The results suggest this: pre-existing views and preferences regarding COVID-19 predicted news selection (i.e., devotion to Servus TV or ORF) and self-selected devotion to this content in turn changed views and preferences regarding COVID-19 in terms of an amplification effect.

Health-related consequences, government responses, economic repercussions, etc. The COVID-19 pandemic can be approached from different angles. When journalists write a story, they select certain aspects of a topic to focus on in their news story, leaving out other aspects. Such selection decisions are inevitable. The emphasis on a certain perspective can suggest to recipients a certain perspective on the respective topic. While forming their opinion, they may refer to these emphasized aspects by a majority. This effect phenomenon is referred to in communication science as the "framing effect" and forms the focus of the present study.

Florian Arendt, Michaela Forrai and Manina Mestas from the University of Vienna investigated the framing effect in the context of COVID-19 related reporting. In their paper, the researchers examine the widely demonstrated tendency for people to focus their media selection increasingly on content that corresponds with their own views. This bears the risk that existing views can be reinforced by selective media consumption.

The research project included three sub-studies with different methodological approaches. First, a content analysis of ServusTV's Austrian news commentary program "Der Wegscheider" was conducted, which was accused of downplaying reporting on the coronavirus and portraying the pandemic government measures as exaggerated. In addition, Günther Mayr's analyses from ORF, which critics called alarmist, were examined. These were focused on as prototypical examples and examined for their framing of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a subsequent online survey of approximately 1,200 participants, those were asked about their frequency of use of the broadcasts and their COVID-19 views. Finally, a web-based experiment with nearly 800 participants was conducted to test whether a preference-based reinforcement model may explain the framing effect as an underlying mechanism.

The higher the consumption of opinion-consistent content, the more likely the framing effect occurred

The appearances of Ferdinand Wegscheider (ServusTV) and Günther Mayr (ORF) were scrutinized over the course of five weeks in the fall of 2020. The two journalists differed significantly in terms of their framing of the Corona issue. While Wegscheider tended to downplay the risks of COVID-19 in relative terms, Mayr portrayed them as great. The survey of respondents' reception behavior with respect to the two programs indicated that frequency of exposure played a role in framing. The more often people saw Günther Mayr's contributions, the higher their perceptions on the seriousness of the pandemic, their support toward government measures, and their compliance with the Corona regulations showed. Respondents who primarily received the program "Der Wegscheider" showed tendencies in the opposite direction. However, the correlative findings of the cross-sectional survey study cannot be interpreted causally with a high degree of certainty. Therefore, a third study was conducted.

Selective exposure makes the difference

Finally, a digital experiment was conducted to examine whether the type of selection was able to amplify framing effects. The findings showed that existing COVID-19 views, attitudes and behaviors influenced the participants' media selection toward matching content. Subsequent self-selected reception of ServusTV and ORF content (i.e., a "best of" content examined in the content analysis) reinforced their attitudes toward the dangerousness (in health terms) of COVID-19, government actions, and behavioral intentions toward the actions.

All in all, "media impact is a complex phenomenon"

"The findings underscore the assumption that media impact phenomena such as the framing effect are complex phenomena. Neither a simplistic omnipotence model based on the notion that all recipients are equally strongly influenced in the direction of the media message, nor a model of absolute ineffectiveness are explanatory." This study "suggests that a 'preference-based amplifier model' that accounts for both selective attention and (amplifier) effects is explanatorily powerful." Theoretically, this is also often discussed in the context of a "reinforcing-spiral" model, as "selective attention and reinforcer effects can build on each other over time. The results are consistent with the assumption that the use of ServusTV or ORF content may have contributed to the polarization of society in this specific pandemic context", study author Florian Arendt concludes.

Publication details

Arendt, F., Forrai, M., & Mestas, M. (2022). News framing and preference-based reinforcement: Evidence from a real framing environment during the COVID-19 pandemic. Communication Research. Advance online publication. doi:10.1177/00936502221102104 (Image © Markus Spiske)

Florian Arendt is Tenure Track Professor of Health Communication in the Department of Communication at the University of Vienna. (Image © Florian Arendt)


Michaela Forrai is an University Assistant (predoctoral researcher) in the Department of Communication at the University of Vienna. (Image © AdMe Research Group | Christian von Sikorski)


Manina Mestas is an University Assistant (predoctoral researcher) in the Department of Communication at the University of Vienna. (Image © Manina Mestas)