Virus Coverage: Business/Global TV Was Ahead of the Curve

Virus Coverage: Business/Global TV Was Ahead of the Curve
AP Photo/Malak Harb
Virus Coverage: Business/Global TV Was Ahead of the Curve
AP Photo/Malak Harb
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As the coronavirus has hit home for America, how have the media covered the pandemic and how has it displaced other major stories? It turns out the international and business press were the first to take the story seriously, while the former global boogeyman, climate change, has all but vanished from the headlines.

The timeline below shows the percentage of total airtime that international (Al Jazeera English, BBC News, DW and Russia Today), business (Bloomberg TV, CNBC and Fox Business News) and domestic (CNN, MSNBC and Fox News) outlets devoted to the outbreak (mentions of “coronavirus” or “COVID-19” or “virus”) by day since the start of this year, using data from the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive processed by the GDELT Project. (Click to enlarge.)

Mentions of the outbreak begin to take off on Jan. 18, but only on international and business news channels. For the following month, as the virus spread globally, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News continued to spend little time on it, allocating just 1%-2% of their airtime per day to the story. Bloomberg was the first of the 11 channels above to recognize the growing dangers of the outbreak, allocating 12%-18% of its airtime every day of the past month and a half to mentions of it.

It was not until Feb. 25 that CNN, MSNBC and Fox News began ramping up their coverage in earnest as it became an American story, much as happened in 2014 with the Ebola outbreak.

Fox Business turned its attention to the story long before Fox News, allocating an average of 5% of its daily airtime to the disease compared to FNC’s 2.5%. It also ramped up its coverage sharply on Feb. 24 while its news counterpart did not reach similar levels of attention until two days later.

What about the stories being displaced by all of this coverage? The 2020 Democratic primary accounted for a quarter to a third of the combined airtime on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News last month, peaking on March 4 -- the day after Super Tuesday -- at 47%. As the timeline below shows, it has dropped precipitously since, decreasing sharply since March 12. Interestingly, the three channels’ fixation on the 2020 race appears to have come at the expense of their pandemic coverage, with a sharp drop in coronavirus coverage from Feb. 29 through March 6 as primary coverage surged.

Climate change was last year’s existential threat, with global rallies and world leaders rushing to outdo one another with their climate commitments. Almost overnight, worldwide online news coverage of the climate crisis has collapsed, as the timeline below shows. Attention began falling sharply starting on Jan. 24 and coverage entered a freefall starting March 6 as the pandemic’s impact on the U.S. and Europe took precedence.

Putting this all together, the international and business press recognized the coming impact of the pandemic long before domestic television news outlets, while the seemingly hourly developments have displaced not only yesteryear’s boogeyman of climate change, but even the previous 2020 media fixation: the race for the presidency.

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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