Dec 21, 2021 - Politics & Policy

America tunes out Omicron news despite ominous threat

Data: NewsWhip, CDC; Chart: Baidi Wang/Axios

New data shows that the Omicron variant is not jumpstarting Americans' engagement in COVID news, despite indications that it may be one of the fastest-spreading variants to date.

Why it matters: News attention spiked early in the Delta wave, but Omicron is not yet having the same effect. A lack of widespread appreciation of the threat could hamper the response.

  • "My sense of things is that the lower levels of public engagement are due to pandemic fatigue setting in, and a perceived sense of this variant is probably no more dangerous than previous variants," said Chris Haynes, a political science professor at the University of New Haven.

Details: Social media interactions (likes, comments, shares) on news articles on COVID have declined dramatically during the course of the pandemic — from 1,171 per article in March 2020 down to 326 in December 2020, and then dropping to an average of 108 over the last three weeks, according to exclusive data from NewsWhip.

Between the lines: This doesn’t necessarily mean total interest in COVID news has gone down, but it has gone down on a per-article basis, meaning individual articles don't get as much attention as they used to.

Google searches about COVID have ticked up since Omicron arrived in the U.S., but are well below the August interest in the Delta variant so far.

The big picture: The urgency and novelty of COVID news in the early days of the pandemic has given way to fatigue as news readers grow used to the same cycles of coverage.

  • The arrival of the pandemic in early 2020 created a media frenzy unlike any other news story in modern history as consumers sought information about what the virus meant for daily life.
  • Since then, the COVID picture has vacillated between grim and promising as waves of cases, hospitalizations and deaths rise and fall.
  • Partisan debates — about lockdowns, mask mandates, vaccine mandates and alternative treatments — have become repetitive as they draw out.

"[T]hose who engaged in vigilant information seeking in the past may no longer feel the same need to do so," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center.

  • Vaccinated people "may have concluded that there is not much more they can do or need to learn," Jamieson said, while unvaccinated people "assume that infection is unworrisome or inevitable or that they have already survived infection or that they are invulnerable to it."

What to watch: As the Omicron variant spreads, interest in COVID news could start to spike in coming weeks, especially as it pertains to holiday travel.

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