On Issue Survival: News Media and How Political Issues Remain Salient in the Face of Crisis


What happens when a crisis such as COVID-19 fully occupies the political and media agenda? Do previous political concerns, such as those on migration, remain salient? Here, I propose and validate a model of issue survival during times of crisis. I argue that issues remain salient when individuals are able to cognitively link “displaced” issues with the ongoing crisis. Such connections between displaced issues and the crisis can be influenced by the media, who, through a process of networked agenda setting, help establish connections between issues. I test this model on the salience of migration during the COVID-19 pandemic in Switzerland and Germany. Leveraging panel surveys administered before and during lockdowns, I show that the issue of migration was displaced during the crisis. Nevertheless, as proposed by the model, this decline in issue salience did not occur for individuals connecting migration to the pandemic. Combining panels with individual-level media consumption data obtained through webtracking, I provide evidence that issue survival was significantly related to the consumption of news stories linking migration to the COVID-19 crisis. The study raises questions about the flow of public opinion during moments of mass uncertainty and highlights the key role media consumption can play in understanding previous issues in new a light.

International Journal of Public Opinion Research