The Protests Have Completely Displaced Covid-19 On TV News But Not Online News

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Television news offers one of the most powerful lenses through which to understand agenda setting due to its fixed airtime of 24 hours a day. Faced with multiple stories, producers must decide which ones to air and which to shelve or cover in less detail. In contrast, online news outlets have unlimited space – a flurry of coverage about a breaking event need not displace previously-scheduled coverage.

Using data from the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive, the timeline below shows the percentage of the combined airtime on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News daily since the start of the year mentioning “(coronavirus OR covid OR virus)” versus “(floyd OR protests OR protesters OR protesting OR protested OR loot OR looting OR looted OR looter OR looter OR demonstrations OR demonstrated OR demonstrating OR riot OR rioters OR rioting OR brutality OR "black lives")”.

Covid-19 coverage has been steadily declining on television since around April 8, but on May 27 Covid coverage began freefalling as coverage of the protests replaced it. From around 15% of combined daily airtime, Covid now makes up just 2%, while the protests are now at 26%. As Axios notes, protests make for television-ready stories, whereas the pandemic was largely relayed through intricate scientific tables filled with arcane medical terminology and health authorities and elected officials standing at podiums recounting statistics.

See the Live Version of the graph below.

GDELT Project

In contrast, in US-based online news coverage, as seen below, there is a drop in Covid-19 coverage, but only slightly more than would be expected based on the weekly trajectory to date, with protest coverage instead rising to exceed Covid coverage.

In short, on television, protest coverage is forced to displace Covid coverage, whereas in online news, protest coverage is simply added to Covid coverage.

See the Live Version of the graph below.

GDELT Project