Nov 17, 2020 - Health

COVID cases are spiking, but our attention isn’t

Data: Newswhip, The COVID Tracking Project; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios
Data: Newswhip, The COVID Tracking Project; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios

Ahead of Thanksgiving travel, new coronavirus cases in the U.S. have never been higher, and online interest in the pandemic has never been lower, according to data from NewsWhip provided to Axios.

Why it matters: The novelty of the virus has long worn off with half a year passed since our lives were upended. But the health risks haven't gone anywhere.

By the numbers: Over the last two weeks, news articles about the pandemic have generated 75 million interactions on social media (likes, comments, shares), according to NewsWhip Data.

  • The last time it was that low over a two-week stretch was in early March.

Between the lines: Online interest in the coronavirus has been associated mostly with how disruptive it's been to people's lives rather than how severe of a risk it posed.

  • Interactions peaked as Americans entered lockdowns and adapted to working and learning from home. It has declined since then, save for an uptick when cases surged in June.
  • Even President Trump getting infected in October only led to a relatively modest bump in interest.

The big picture: Lower interest — not less media coverage — is responsible for the lower engagement.

  • The number of news articles published about coronavirus are comparable to the level of coverage when cases spiked in June and July.
  • The 174 interactions per article last week are the lowest they've ever been during the pandemic.
  • Similarly, mentions of "coronavirus" and "COVID-19" have remained consistently high on cable news over the past eight months, usually averaging between 100 and 200 minutes of monthly coverage on each cable network, with the most coverage coming from CNN, per the Stanford Cable News Analyzer.

Yes, but: The election has been dominating most of the news coverage lately, so COVID coverage has had to compete with that.

Be smart: Sociologists argue that one reason that the public has perhaps become more apathetic towards media coverage about the virus because it's become too redundant and often, alarmist.

  • The media is "overproducing the article of the day" without thinking about what reader value it's creating, said Zeynep Tufekci, a UNC professor and prominent sociologist and writer, on the recent Recode Media podcast.
  • Tufekci cites an example of media outlets covering rare deaths caused by vaccine trials as an example of fear-mongering coverage that forces listeners to tune out.
  • "We end up in an environment in which people don't trust the media as much. You don't just jump on every potential twist when people are freaked out."
  • Her advice to the media moving forward: "Publish less. People are publishing readable stuff but are over-simplifying."
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