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Community Broadcaster: Mask Off

Local disputes over face coverings offer chances for radio to intervene

The author is membership program director of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. NFCB commentaries are featured regularly at

Labor Day brings all kinds of folks into travel mode. Yet, across America, the mask wars are raging. How can radio best intervene in the interests of public safety?

By now, virtually everyone has heard of the feuds over how helpful face coverings are in stopping the spread of COVID-19. Georgia is one of the most prominent examples of the partisan divides, but this disagreement is being played out across the United States. And who has not been exposed to a Facebook post, text or image about face coverings?

[Read: Community Broadcaster: Tuned Out]

Since the days of “duck and cover” and even long before, radio stations have been a first line of defense for the American people. As media first responders, radio stations nationwide educate listeners about natural disasters, wildfires and area emergencies by providing essential information. We may tell our audiences about shelters, the latest data about a regional calamity, or ways they can protect themselves from smoke, landslides, and any number of issues that arise. Many now are important players in explaining COVID-19, but it’s evident our job has only just begun.

Scientists agree that social distancing and mask wearing are both effective in slowing the spread of coronavirus. However, in many communities, this is not a debate about health of a community. Instead, it is about misunderstandings and, at times, conspiracy theories that threaten to tear at the very fabric of who we are.

First Draft News recently held a meeting on the proliferation of antiface covering social media messages and memes. Their themes may prove instructive for your station.

Community Broadcaster, coronavirus,

The “infodemic,” as First Draft News called it, is worldwide and taps into old boogeymen like The Government, Big Brother, the New World Order, et al. At points, you’ll see mask wearing likened to gun ownership — arguing that, if liberals can choose whether or not they own firearms, conservatives can choose whether or not they wear masks. However, these forces are not the only problem, as First Draft notes the pro-mask contingent regularly amplifies their opposition and spreads misinformation. The Guardian takes a dive into how masks became a political issue.

What can a radio station do in this climate? Clearly, there are the established health protocols to share. A station can do creative public service announcements that make information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many stations are doing exactly that — educating listeners with information that may is online, but could feel intimidating or hard to access. Stations are diligent about making emergency information understandable during a disaster; surely that ingenuity exists in a pandemic too.

Similarly, PSAs and other conversations may be the way a station can tackle misinformation about safety. A plethora of journalism organizations have stepped to help media correct the public record and clear up misunderstanding. How could your radio station tackle some of the rancor in a fashion that is compassionate and builds community? Panel discussions, listening sessions and more beckon.

Unfortunately, disputes over masks are here seemingly as long as COVID-19 may be with us. Radio stations can play a crucial role in cutting through the noise during this major health emergency.