Coronavirus Bulldozes the 2020 Race Out of the Media Spotlight

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As the coronavirus spreads across the United States, how extensively are the media covering it, what is it displacing and who are journalists turning to for authoritative information?

Just a few months ago, the 2020 presidential race was becoming the story of the year, as seen in the “steamgraph” timeline below showing mentions of the Democratic candidates over the last three months on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News, using data processed by the GDELT Project from the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive. (Click to enlarge. A steamgraph is an area chart where the data series are stacked on top and below of each other around a central axis; positioning above/below is not meaningful -- only the relative height of each series.)

Yet mentions of the race collapsed tenfold from March 11 to March 12 and again from March 18 to March 19 and have not recovered since. From a peak of almost 4,000 mentions on March 4, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden today accounts for just a few dozen mentions a day.

In the race’s place, explicit mentions of the coronavirus by name have grown to account for at least 20% of the daily airtime on the three television channels, with CNN covering it the most from late February through March 12 and Fox News taking the lead since then, with MSNBC paying the least attention to the virus the last three months. (This counts only mentions of the words “coronavirus” and “COVID-19” and “virus” and so likely dramatically undercounts total airtime that focuses on the virus’ impact without mentioning those terms specifically.)

Globally, as much as half of worldwide online news coverage monitored by GDELT in the past week has mentioned the virus in some way, capturing the sheer scale of its impact on everything from sports and leisure to technology and the economy.

Mentions of racist attacks against Asians, Italians and others from global virus hotspots have surged, accounting for as much as 1.2% of global news coverage, using the keywords “racist OR racism OR discrimination OR discriminate OR racial OR stereotypes OR xenophobia OR hate” alongside “Coronavirus OR COVID-19 OR virus.”

Who speaks for the U.S. government in this time of crisis? Despite his historic sway over the media since June 2015, President Trump has largely taken a back seat of late. In his place, other government leaders and experts including Alex Azar, Anthony Fauci, Deborah Birx and coronavirus czar Mike Pence have become the pandemic spokespersons on television news, as seen in the timeline below.

Pence was the initial go-to media sound bite, along with Azar (the mentions of Pence in January relate to Zelensky 2019 inauguration-related reports), but he quickly receded, replaced by Fauci and, increasingly, Birx.

Fauci’s star has risen as his public statements on the virus have changed. On Jan. 13 he reassured the nation that the new virus did not readily transmit between people and that it was not spreading internationally, as did SARS. A month later he again dismissed the virus’ domestic impact, offering that its danger to the American public was “just minuscule” and that people should instead focus on the “real and present danger” of the flu.

As his rhetoric shifted over the following days from minimizing the virus’ impact to warning of enormous disruptions to American life, he became a fixture of television news programming, reaching almost half as many mentions as the president himself over the past week.

Putting this all together, as the coronavirus pandemic has become the story of the year, it has displaced the presidential race and stripped Trump of some of his media luster. Meanwhile, the same experts who just weeks ago cautioned the nation against worrying about a disease with a “minuscule” risk of spreading now find themselves the newfound, and heroically portrayed, focal points of the media.

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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