For weeks before the egregious police killing of George Floyd sparked protests, public-health experts and much of the press were singularly focused on COVID-19. News coverage of the pandemic frequently cast protests against stay-at-home orders and the closures of businesses and churches as risky, if not irresponsible. “Public-health officials say the coronavirus can easily be spread by people packed together, like, say, at a protest,” NPR’s David Folkenflik told listeners in April. “Fox hosts like Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and others have cheered the protests—usually from the safety of their own home studios—yet have done so without explicitly noting the risks involved.”
Skeptical coverage of anti-shutdown protests and scolding of those who failed to socially distance abounded. Later, when a video of a social gathering at an outdoor pool in the Ozarks went viral, news articles quoted elected leaders and health officials describing the event as reckless.
Then mass protests against police killings began. Many protesters wore masks and kept a distance between themselves and other participants—but others left their faces uncovered, traveled in large groups, crowded together, and shouted for hours. Police arrested many, transporting them in crowded vehicles to enclosed spaces. Some news outlets published articles specifically noting these facts, but most stories about the protests did not mention potential risk at all. Commentators who did raise concerns about disease transmission sometimes sounded apologetic. “It seems almost weird to say this,” the MSNBC host Chris Hayes tweeted, “but the coronavirus hasn’t changed, and hasn’t gone anywhere. Very hopeful outdoor activity + warmer weather + mask wearing can avoid huge clusters, but real worried.”