Media Coverage and Coronavirus Panic: What the Numbers Show

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As the coronavirus has spread globally, fearful shoppers have stripped stores bare and caused a worldwide shortage of protective face masks. To what degree do the media deserve scrutiny for the role their wall-to-wall, end-of-days coverage may have played in fomenting this sort of panic?

The Jan. 1-Feb. 28 timeline below compares worldwide Google search interest for the coronavirus against worldwide online news coverage in 65 languages using data from the GDELT Project, along with mentions on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News using data from the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive processed by GDELT. To overlay the three timelines onto a single graph, they were converted to “Z-scores,” which report the number of standard deviations from the mean. (Click to enlarge.)

Despite the coronavirus spreading rapidly across China early this year, media and search interest remained nearly nonexistent until around Jan. 21, when the first case on U.S. soil was reported. This is similar to the 2014 Ebola outbreak, which also received little media coverage until it reached the United States.

Attention has increased sharply since Feb. 21 as the virus’ global spread accelerated.

The American media have increasingly contextualized the illness’ U.S. spread in terms of the Trump administration’s response. Since Feb. 25, Donald Trump has been mentioned in a quarter to a third of U.S. news coverage of the virus, reflecting the stakes for his presidency. Globally, a quarter of economic news coverage mentions the coronavirus in some way, reflecting its outsized impact on the world economy.

Looking closely at the timeline above, both online news and online search interest appear to increase at nearly the same time in January, with news coverage slightly beating search interest during last week’s surge. Television news did not begin paying serious attention to the virus until Feb. 24.

Zooming in to the period when interest really accelerated, the timeline below compares the hourly Z-scores (UTC, also referred to as Greenwich Mean Time) of worldwide Google Trends search interest and online news coverage from Feb. 18 to Feb. 25, using a six-hour rolling average to smooth the data.

Online news attention to the coronavirus appears to be tightly linked with search interest overall. A closer inspection shows that once interest begins to increase on Feb. 22, news coverage tends to lead search interest by several hours, with each increase in media coverage leading to a similar increase in search interest later that day

The strong similarity between online news and search interest and the fact that news increases appear to lead search interest certainly lends weight to the argument that the media have helped fan the flames of panic around the disease’s spread.

Nowhere has this public response been more apparent than in the mass purchasing of “N95” face masks. The timeline below compares the daily Z-scores of U.S. search interest for the masks compared with online and television news mentions of them.

Both online news and search interest show the same upward trajectory beginning Jan. 21, but news coverage increases faster and does not peak until Feb. 2, two full days after the searches peak. News mentions of masks surge again on Feb. 21, but it is not until two days later that searches experience a similar surge. In turn, television news mentions of mask sales do not increase dramatically until Feb. 26, the day after web searches began surging rapidly.

Putting this all together, the graphs above suggest that the media’s wall-to-wall coverage of the coronavirus outbreak played a measurable role in driving public attention to the virus and likely worsening behaviors such as panic buying. The television media appear to have been late to the game, picking up on both the virus’ spread and the shortages of masks long after they were stories.

Most importantly, the strong association of coronavirus coverage with Donald Trump in the U.S. and the economy globally suggests the outbreak is being contextualized as a political and economic story -- delivering a dose of panic in the process -- rather than a public health emergency that requires clinical and dispassionate reporting.

RealClear Media Fellow Kalev Leetaru is a senior fellow at the George Washington University Center for Cyber & Homeland Security. His past roles include fellow in residence at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Government.

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