Evolution of Pandemic coverage in American Newspapers

Part One: The Beginning of 2020

By: Jenn Langdon, Business Development Director

There is no question that the COVID-19 pandemic has been one of the most prevalent and altering challenges that the world has ever encountered. A byproduct of these challenges is that the pandemic has become one of the most discussed topics in media history.

At Newz Group we have a unique perspective when it comes to news, because we ingest such a vast quantity of it. With our traditional print monitoring services, we archive and read approximately 37% of newspapers in the United States every week.

Even though America is probably quite far away from a ‘New Normal,’ as the national fully-vaccinated rate nears fifty percent, we thought it would be interesting to take a look back at the evolution of COVID-19 coverage in newspapers. For this project, we searched our print archives for mentions of ‘COVID-19’ and ‘coronavirus’ in each of our states from January 1st of 2020, to May 31st of 2021. Our team used ‘COVID-19’ and ‘coronavirus’ as the search terms, because they are the most prevalent terms used in reference to the pandemic.

In part one of this series we will examine the onset of COVID-19 in newspaper mentions from early 2020 across the thirteen states that Newz Group monitors and archives.

States where Newz Group monitors all State Press Association-member newspapers (Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, West Virginia, Wyoming).

These states are where data was pulled for January of 2020 through May of 2021.

Cornavirus: A novel concept for America

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was at most a handful of mentions in 2019 of the phrase ‘coronavirus;’ these mentions referred to other strains of coronavirus, mostly in animals.

In the thirteen states that Newz Group monitors, the first mention our team found of a possible new coronavirus infecting humans in China in 2020 was on January 5th in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

In mid-January of 2020, the Associated Press ran its first story about the novel coronavirus that was starting to raise alarms in China. Several newspapers in all 13 of Newz Group’s states printed this story. Associated Press articles made up the majority of mentions in the month of January. While most states averaged 20 to 30 mentions of COVID or coronavirus, North Dakota newspapers only had approximately three mentions; on the opposite end of the spectrum, newspapers in Texas had approximately 80 mentions of COVID or coronavirus that month.

As the novel coronavirus mutated from a virus that was an ocean away to a possible concern for Americans in the month of February of 2020, newspaper mentions of COVID or coronavirus started to rise quickly. According to a February 29th article in the Sun News of Myrtle Beach, SC, there were sixty reported cases of the novel coronavirus in America with zero deaths.

On February 24th, 2020, the Laramie Boomerang in Laramie, Wyoming, ran a letter to the editor from a local citizen warning Laramie residents to prepare for a coronavirus outbreak. Citing spread and mitigation strategies in other countries, the writer warned residents to be prepared for social distancing measures, disruptions to supply chains and mentioned they were keeping extra groceries on hand. This letter to the editor was one of the earliest examples our team saw of a layperson forewarning their community about the dangers of COVID-19 and the issues it could cause.

February 2020 was also the month that our researchers at Newz Group started to become alarmed at the unfolding crisis. Senior Staff Researcher Beth Krause said,

Around February, I saw articles about doctors in China sobbing outside the hospitals, infected with the virus that was killing their patients, and unable to do anything to help alleviate the situation. Then the news coverage began to cover the crisis in New York City, and things really began to hit home. It was devastating to see article after article describing the death and hopelessness that infiltrated the communities who had been hit hardest by COVID-19.

In Newz Group’s 13 states, the overall coverage in February of 2020 was a mix of tracking COVID-19 overseas, downplaying the danger of COVID-19 to the average American, the idea of suspending the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and discussing possible virus mitigation strategies if the virus spread in America to a greater degree. All our states saw a large increase in mentions of ‘coronavirus’ or ‘COVID-19’ from January of 2020 to February 2020, averaging ten times more mentions of these keywords.

For much of America and the states that Newz Group services, March of 2020 was the month when the novel coronavirus went from being an abstract concept to a threat and disruption of our day-to-day lives. In Missouri, the first COVID-19 case was announced on March 7th, 2020, and in Columbia, Missouri, the home of Newz Group, a local ‘stay-in-place order’ went into effect on March 24th.

On the national level, the NBA halted their season on March 11th of 2020. And on the same day, the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 to be a pandemic with 118,000 cases in 114 countries and 4,291 deaths worldwide. In Kansas for the week of March 10th, 2020, “World Health Organization” was mentioned approximately 176 times in Kansas Press Association-member newspapers, and “NBA” was mentioned approximately 258 times in the same newspapers. In fact, in many states for the month of March, content related to sports disruptions and changes was a major focus in COVID-19 coverage.

March of 2020 marked the first time that there were well over one thousand newspaper mentions of “COVID-19” or “Coronavirus” in most Newz Group states – for a total of almost 80,000 mentions in all our states together. Texas is Newz Group’s largest state – by both geographic size and quantity of newspapers – and in the month of March 2020, Texas had almost 24,000 mentions of COVID-19 or coronavirus.

In early 2020, the rise and growth of coronavirus coverage in the news was explosive; it went from a handful of mentions in January to tens of thousands of mentions in March. This growth and change is stark when visualized. The above chart shows the mentions of COVID-19 in four of our states in January, February, and March of 2020. The mentions are laid on top of each other in the chart, and if you look closely, you will notice a sliver of pink at the bottom of each column for mentions in January. The number of mentions state-wide for each state in February is denoted in green, and March is denoted in blue.

The slideshow below illustrates the mentions for each month in January, February, and March of 2020.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic nor media coverage related to it did not end in March of 2020. Join us for part two of this series where we will continue to dive down into newspaper coverage in Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, West Virginia and Wyoming.

Celebrating its 25th year, Newz Group provides state press associations with publisher support and archiving services alongside the most comprehensive newspaper monitoring in the greater Midwest. Newz Group is the primary media monitoring source for over 1/3 of American newspapers. For more information visit: www.newzgroup.com

Jenn Langdon is the Business Development Director at Newz Group. She has also been a contributing writer to the Sedalia Democrat and The Kansas City Pitch and was recently named the 2nd Best Newspaper Columnist by Missouri Magazine. Jenn has been with Newz Group for almost two years.