Evolution of Pandemic coverage in American Newspapers

Part Two: Summer of 2020, the First Wave

By: Jenn Langdon, Business Development Director

In part one of this series we examined media coverage in newspapers at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the thirteen states in which Newz Group monitors and archives newspapers.

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 utilized our print archives and searched for mentions of the keywords ‘COVID-19’ and ‘coronavirus’ in each of the states we cover, 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.

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.

Spring of 2020: An overblown threat?

For most of Newz Group’s primary monitoring states, spring of 2020 was when the concept of a pandemic transitioned from being a problem across the sea or on the coasts to an agent of change in our daily lives. As stay-in-place orders, social distancing procedures and other COVID-19 mitigation policies became commonplace, mentions of the pandemic in newspapers rose at an even higher rate.

Mentions of the pandemic in April of 2020 were almost double the number from March, with nearly 190,000 mentions of Coronavirus or COVID-19 in Newz Group’s primary monitoring states combined. South Carolina saw the most dramatic rise in pandemic-related mentions, with over three times as many mentions in April of 2020 compared to March of 2020. This drastic change is in part due to the state’s location on the East Coast, and the implementation of mitigation strategies at earlier dates than Newz Group’s other states.

Thematically, in April and May of 2020, the bulk of news was about new policies, changes to schools, sports, and celebrations. Also, in these months was when complaints about the pandemic started to be seen at a higher rate. The most common theme of complaints in April and May of 2020 was mitigation strategies being an overreaction to the number of COVID-19 infections and fatalities.

The most common place at any time to find discourse and discussion about any topic affecting a community is the opinion pages of newspapers. Discussion of COVID-19 and pandemic mitigation strategies was no exception to this rule. From April of 2020 onward, a person could flip open any newspaper to the opinion page and find at least one letter to the editor about COVID-19.

On April 1st, 2020, the opinion page from The Santa Fe New Mexican in Santa Fe, New Mexico, had seven separate letters to the editor about COVID-19 of varying opinions; several of the letters were anti-lockdown, and one person wanted New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to run for president. In April of 2020, Governor Cuomo’s daily COVID-19 briefings and appearances on his brother’s CNN show were popular all over the country. It is interesting to look back over a year later, and see the complaints of the low amount of deaths due to COVID-19 in America. One Santa Fe resident wrote into the paper that with 587 American deaths due to COVID-19 as of March 24th, 2020 the panic happening was not justified and was overblown.

Letters to the Editor from The Santa Fe New Mexican, in Santa Fe New Mexico on April 1st, 2020.

Into the summer of 2020, mentions still continued to revolve around the best practices to control the spread of COVID-19, event changes and postponements, and discourse on whether or not measures were too extreme. But, at the same time our researchers at Newz Group noticed that also obituaries began appearing at a higher rate, and stories started to appear about hospitals getting overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients. Newz Group Chief Content Director Amy Fritz said about the summer of 2020,

‘There were many months late last year where the coverage was constant and dire. Stories about hospitals running out of beds and equipment, nurses and doctors stretched super thin and grieving and dealing with PTSD. In hot spots like TX, the National Guard had to come in to assist with morgue management because there were too many bodies.’

As the first wave of COVID-19 high number outbreaks gripped the country, many organizations, individuals, and numerous state National Guards volunteered to assist communities in a variety of ways.  From running testing sites, keeping food banks operational, making masks and unfortunately assisting with morgue management, when assistance was needed people all over the country gave what they could.

Article about free mask distribution from The Joplin Globe in Joplin, MO on July, 17th 2020.

There were also many examples of communities rallying to support first responders to the COVID-19 Pandemic as cases, hospitalizations and deaths continued to increase across the nation.

The Times-Tribune in Corbin, Kentucky, for example, reported on citizens staging a convoy to show their support for hospital workers after 47 patients and 8 hospital employees at Christian Health Center tested positive for COVID-19.

As the spring and summer of 2020 continued, stories mentioning COVID-19 or Coronavirus were still extraordinarily high. In June of 2020, mentions of the pandemic in newspapers crossed the quarter-million threshold. Mentions in newspapers peaked in July of 2020, with approximately 277,000 mentions in Newz Group’s primary monitoring states. In the summer of 2020, it was easy to feel like the only thing that was being mentioned in the news was the pandemic, and that feeling was not completely off base; according to our friends at pressrelations, in early June of 2020, 65% of American news stories mentioned keywords related to the pandemic, and that number rose as high as 80% in July of 2020. The trend of hundreds of thousands of mentions per month stayed consistent in August and September as well.

As the summer turned into fall, two main themes were the bulk of news coverage in America.  Join us for part three 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.