Pandemic to Protests: Coverage Shifted But Outlooks Didn’t

After three months of wall-to-wall television coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic, almost overnight the live infection dashboards and often-uttered phrases like “social distancing” have all but disappeared, replaced with images of a nation in racial turmoil. How are the major cable news channels covering the protests and what do their different narratives teach us about how the media frames national events? The data provide some clues.

Since late February, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News have spent at least 15% of their daily airtime on the pandemic, based on data from the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive processed by the GDELT Project. CNN displayed a live dashboard of infection and death counts a total of nine hours a day, seven days a week. As much as half of all news coverage worldwide mentioned the virus.

Online, Facebook banned protest posts that did not order attendees to socially distance, while Medium and Twitter cracked down on posts that disputed CDC guidance.

Overnight, all of that changed.

From 13% of the combined airtime for CNN, MSNBC and Fox News on May 26, the virus has been mentioned on just 3% of their airtime the past week, while the George Floyd protests accounted for more than a quarter of the channels’ daily broadcasting, the highest percentage devoted to protest over the past decade. The fixed airtime of television news means that coverage of the protests must necessarily replace coverage of the pandemic.

In contrast, online news coverage of the pandemic in the U.S. did not substantially decline, as protest coverage was merely added to it, reflecting the infinite capacity of digital news.

While CNN and MSNBC have maintained a laser-like focus on the pandemic, both Fox News and worldwide online news coverage have steadily ramped down their coronavirus coverage by almost half since late March. Globally, social distancing, lockdowns and the catchphrase “in this together” have all been fading from the news as there has been growing awareness of the practices’ impacts.

After months of news showing people socially distanced in public spaces, all three channels have featured endless footage of enormous gatherings, with MSNBC devoting 9.7 hours on Sunday to the marches, compared with 7.7 hours on CNN and 6.8 hours on Fox. Rather than focus on the protesters, Fox News has emphasized the police far more prominently, airing almost 14 hours focused on them since last Monday, more than CNN and MSNBC combined. For every second of airtime depicting police over the past week and a half, there were 6.5 seconds of protesters on CNN, 5.4 seconds on MSNBC and just 2.5 seconds on Fox.

For those watching the protests unfold through CNN or MSNBC, they saw large crowds peacefully matching through the streets. Viewers of Fox News saw those protests through the lens of crowd interactions with police. David Dorn, the black police chief killed by Missouri looters, was mentioned by Fox News 18 times versus three mentions on CNN and just once on MSNBC.

All three channels mentioned the word “peaceful” roughly the same number of times. Fox, however, mentioned “violence” 1.5 times more than its peers, “looting” more than CNN and MSNBC combined and “rioting” more than twice as many times as CNN and MSNBC together, as seen in the graph below. (Click to enlarge.)

What about social distancing?

As reopening protests grew across the country earlier this spring, media outlets and health authorities excoriated protesters for their failure to maintain proper distancing. As of Friday, the three channels’ 50-100 mentions per day had dropped to just a dozen, with few of the condemnations or warnings from health authorities mentioning the potential for a second wave of infections. Even Facebook appears to have quietly decided to stop enforcing its previous ban on all protest-related posts that did not explicitly order attendees to socially distance. The company remained silent when asked why it no longer stressed that social distancing was necessary for protests to be organized on its platform.

Did the nation witness a wave of violent looters rampaging across the nation this past week and a half or did peaceful grassroots marches take a stand across the country against police brutality and racism? Will massive nationwide protests without social distancing cause a new wave of hospitalizations and deaths or is social distancing no longer required? The answers apparently depend on where you turn for your news and reflects just how divided our nation continues to be.

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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