How COVID-19 Has Transformed What We Hear and See on TV

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How is television news changing in the COVID-19 era as news channels run wall-to-wall pandemic coverage, newsreaders, reporters and guests increasingly call in from home, and the imagery of society -- empty streets and a masked public -- itself changes?

Across media generally, mentions of “experts” are soaring as outlets increasingly interview medical and academic professionals; phrases like “social distancing” are part of every discussion; and outlets talk increasingly of a “new normal.” An early focus on “the elderly” has given way to discussion of “immunity,” while coverage of “death” and “rationing” of care are declining as countries ramp up their responses.

Media coverage has also shifted from “flattening the curve” to “reopening” the economy, as seen in the timeline below (Y-axis reports standard deviations from mean or “Z-scores”). March 12 saw both terms begin increasing in usage, but since April 5 mentions of “reopening” have surged while mentions of “flattening the curve” have steadily fallen since April 12. (Click to enlarge.)

Even the pronouns used by the media have shifted from “I" and “me” to “us” and “we.” The timeline below shows the percentage of all words spoken on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News since July 2009 (and BBC News since January 2017) that were “us” or “we.” Fox appears to have long preferred such terms more than its peers, but sharply increased its usage after the election of Donald Trump. All four channels have dramatically increased their usage in 2020.

The timeline below zooms into the January 2020-to-present period, showing that “us” and “we” began increasing around Feb. 25 and have surged since about March 11, stabilizing at elevated levels since March 17.

Mentions of “I” and “me” show no such change, indicating that the COVID-19 era is more about “us” than “me.”

What about the visuals-first world of television news? Google’s Video AI was used to “watch” CNN since Jan. 25 of this year and describe the objects and activities it observed second by second. The source of all the broadcasts was the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive and they were analyzed by the GDELT Project in a special non-consumptive digital library system.

The volume of on-screen text has increased 55% to more than 18 million characters per day since March 18, peaking around March 27 and continuing through present, as CNN airs live infection and death counts for nearly a third of its airtime every day.

Since March 9, a growing percentage of CNN’s airtime each day comes via Cisco’s Webex video conferencing software, totaling as much as three hours a day.  Alongside its increasingly remote reporters and guests are fewer speaker changes (in which one speaker yields to another to respond) from around 6,000 to around 5,000 per day, with longer monologues replacing the traditional back-and-forth of host and guest.

As CNN increasingly relies on homebound guests and personalities, bookcases have become a familiar sight since late March, especially as a backdrop, while buzz cut hairstyles have steadily increased since early April as a quarantined public apparently tries its hand at home haircutting.

Imagery of crowds have largely faded away since mid-March, as the rallies and protests of the 2020 presidential race all but disappeared in early March (only to stage a comeback, of sorts, since April 18 as reopening protests have taken place across the country).

Finally, who is telling the COVID-19 story on CNN? Chyron mentions (typically used to display the name and affiliation of guests during their appearances) of “professor” have increased nearly three-fold since early March, while “doctor” and “nurse” have increased since Feb. 26 from a minute or two per day to between an hour and a third of the day, every day, showing just how much the channel is relying on the medical community to inform its viewers and recount their experiences on the frontlines.

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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