Early View Article - Politicising pandemics: Evidence from US media coverage of the World Health Organisation

Politicising pandemics: Evidence from US media coverage of the World Health Organisation

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organisation (WHO) was politicised in the United States (US) by Donald Trump in an effort to deflect blame as the virus spread. In this paper, we empirically investigate media coverage of the WHO in the US to better understand how negative evaluations of international organisations (IOs) spread. To do so, we perform quantitative text analysis on an original corpus of over 11,000 news articles on the WHO from the New York Times and the Washington Post between 1980 and 2020. Our text-as-data analyses yield several noteworthy findings. First, we show that media coverage of the WHO in the US has become more negative over time. Second, we show that negativity increases during global health crises. Third, we provide evidence that explicit criticisms also increase during crises. Fourth, we show that “blame-shifting” by Trump and allies was clearly observable in the US news media. Finally, we show that negative stories about the WHO are shared more than positive ones on social media. Our results provide unique evidence, suggesting that the WHO has become more politicised in the US, which we argue creates opportunities for politicians seeking to blame IOs during crises.

Policy implications

  • Negative media coverage of IOs represents a key challenge for global governance. In an increasingly hostile media environment, politicians are more likely to attempt blame-shifting strategies during crises such as global health emergencies.
  • The media should do more to recognize that current media consumption and editorial practices likely bias against positive coverage of IOs and enact strategies to address this imbalance.
  • Staff at the WHO, and other IOs, should carefully enact practices of self-legitimation to counteract an increasingly negative media environment. Possibilities include more self-promotion of successes and better public-relations campaigns aimed at garnering positive media attention.
  • Proponents of international cooperation should do more to tout the benefits of IOs domestically to rhetorically counteract negative evaluations. This should include adopting messages that are more likely to be covered by media as well as shared on social media.


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