Jun 2, 2020 - Economy & Business

Protest coverage dwarfs coronavirus

Data: Newswhip; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: Newswhip; Chart: Axios Visuals

Coverage of George Floyd's death and the ensuing protests this weekend completely dwarfed coverage of the coronavirus, even as the death toll from the pandemic ticked beyond 100,000 in the U.S.

Why it matters: For months, Americans struggled to understand the severity of the pandemic, as hospitals needed to stay closed to outside visitors, let alone journalists with cameras. Now, the opposite is unfolding, with stark images and videos going viral around the protests sweeping the country.

By the numbers: Across the board, coverage of the protests and demand for that content is skyrocketing, overtaking news about the pandemic.

  • On television, wall-to-wall coverage of the protests has dominated the airwaves. On Sunday, around 2.5% of the combined airtime of CNN, MSNBC and Fox News mentioned the coronavirus, or related words (COVID-19, pandemic, etc.), while around 25% of the airtime mentioned the Floyd protests or related words (Black Lives Matter, demonstrations, etc.), according to data from the Internet Archive Television News Archive.
  • On social media, interest in the fallout from the Floyd killing took off as protests raged at the end of last week and surpassed the coronavirus on Thursday, according to data from NewsWhip. By Saturday, there were 14 times as many interactions on stories about the protests.
  • On search, "George Floyd" overtook "coronavirus" as the most popular search in the U.S. on Wednesday evening and continued to outrank it through the weekend, according to data from Google Trends. "Minneapolis" overtook "coronavirus" on Thursday night — the second evening when protests turned violent.
  • Online, articles about "police brutality" were 6.8 times more in demand than articles about "coronavirus," averaging 3,800 views per article, according to data from web analytics company Parse.ly.

The big picture: The media has the ability to shape the outcomes of both crises, depending on the way that it covers them.

  • The extensive visual coverage of the protests has reinforced the intensity of the wider #BlackLivesMatter movement, even if only a small percentage of Americans comparatively were actually involved in the demonstrations.
  • Meanwhile, the lack of visuals around the coronavirus, in addition to loosened stay-at-home restrictions, has made it easier for networks and the public to move on, even though many places in the country are experiencing an uptick in cases and/or deaths.

Be smart: Ideally, the media should have no problem paying attention to both issues, but pressure to keep viewers glued to their screens will make it difficult to avoid the unique visual opportunity that the protests present.

  • As Axios' Scott Rosenberg points out, smartphones and social media deliver direct accounts of grief- and rage-inducing stories. Most news outlets have had to rely on charts and coverage press conferences with health and government officials to explain the severity of the pandemic.

One constant across both issues is that the press itself was intimately impacted.

  • During the coronavirus, dozens of outlets faced layoffs or closures due mostly to the collapse of the ad market. Newsrooms and broadcasters also needed to reconfigure for remote work.
  • During the protests, journalists faced record levels of police and protest brutality.

The bottom line: The coronavirus has been the biggest story over the last few months in part because it's largely been the only story. In the span of a week, that changed as our health and economic pain shifted to social and systemic pain.

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