July 17th, 2020

Victoria’s new wave of COVID-19 infections: is it reflected in media coverage?

Unfortunately, Melburnians have returned to stage 3 restrictions after an increase in the number of COVID-19 cases since the middle of June 2020. This step backwards was disappointing, but necessary. Every day, Australians await state Premiers’ announcements on the number of new cases. The cumulative cases graph is no longer that pretty, but hopefully the stay-at-home efforts will be noticeable in the upcoming weeks.

 

Graph source: Wikipedia. Shows total new cases in Australia from 10th May 2020 to 16th July 2020. 

In previous blog posts, we reported that media coverage on COVID-19 matched the infections spike from back in March–April time. When there was an increase in infections, there was also an increase in media coverage on the virus. It was all our media could talk about.

Media Exposure represents the cumulative daily number of news articles published including a specific key word. Using our media monitoring software Meltwater, we looked at the Media Exposure for articles containing ‘COVID-19’ / ‘coronavirus’ in print / online media from 10th March 2020 to 25th May 2020. Late May was around the time restrictions started being relaxed and we were able to have five people at our home in Victoria. A thrilling time in comparison to March and April!

This might not look that striking, so let’s look at the same graph from 1st January 2020, before COVID-19 was part of our vocabulary. Now, the ‘spike’ in media coverage is easier to see.

Note: The regular dips every five days represent the weekends, when there are fewer staff in newsrooms and more room for feel-good news stories than scary pandemic stories. Read more.

The Media Exposure spike in late March and slow decrease is comparable to the COVID-19 cases graph below, which has been stopped at 25th May 2020. Sure, media is still reporting on COVID-19, but the coverage has plateaued. It would be wrong not to report on COVID-19 at all. It is an international issue, and even though the case numbers were low between mid-April and mid-June, the topic still deserves public attention.

 

We now investigate whether the spike in cases in recent weeks in Victoria is reflected in media coverage in Australia.

 

Here is a Media Exposure graph for ‘COVID-19’ / ‘coronavirus’ mentions in print / online media since 1st May 2020. The different lines represent four different Australian states (Victoria, New South Wales, Western Australia and South Australia).

Note: The regular dips every five days represent the weekends, when there are fewer staff in newsrooms and more room for feel-good news stories than scary pandemic stories. Read more.

We were surprised by this Media Exposure graph for a couple of reasons. Before we go into that, take a look at the COVID-19 cases graph for the same timeframe below. The new increase is pretty obvious.

  • First, the coverage has not taken off again in Victoria where cases are growing by the day. Even in New South Wales where new clusters are appearing, there has not been a sudden resurgence in COVID-19 media coverage. Maybe COVID-19 fatigue is real?
  • Second, Australian states that have closed borders and very few cases of COVID-19 are still reporting on the virus as much as they did two-and-a-half months ago. There has been no decrease in media coverage there. Could this be because there is genuine concern around the virus infiltrating these states who have worked so hard to keep it out? South Australia should be concerned: four stowaways were caught on a freight train coming from Melbourne this week. People will literally do anything to cross state borders and leave quarantined zones, something that is keeping state Premiers up at night.

 

We also looked at the Top Sources charts for both Victoria and New South Wales. Which media outlets (print / online) have been the top publishers of COVID-19 content?

 

Interestingly, News Corp Australia (The Herald Sun and Daily Telegraph) topped the charts. Their Fairfax competition was much further down. In Victoria, The Age came fourth and the Sydney Morning Herald is not even in the top six for New South Wales. This could be explained by syndication. Syndicated news stories are shared between media outlets that are part of the same group (e.g. News Corp Australia owns both the Herald Sun and Geelong Advertiser). This is frequently seen on television; for instance 7 NEWS will share a news story captured by their crew in a metropolitan area with their regional counterparts.

So maybe we will never see another huge spike in media coverage on COVID-19. The novelty news value may have worn off. Today’s COVID-19 news stories display different core news values than novelty. These other core news values are ensuring that the ever-plateauing volume of COVID-19 media coverage inundating our Twitter feeds doesn’t stop.

If you aren’t responsible for writing media releases or working with journalists, you probably have not heard of the core news values before. There are eight, and your news story does not need to include every single one (that would be one hell of a Venn diagram). However, these can help explain to the journalist why they should care about the news story.

The core news values:

 

  • Timeliness. This is something that happened today, the last 48 hours. Breaking news!
  • Novelty. New data, new research, something unexpected and different. We’ve all heard about ‘dog bites man’, but have you heard about ‘man bites dog’? COVID-19 was once full of novelty, but as time passes, this news value is less characteristic to the virus.
  • Impact. How many people care about this issue? If you are sharing a story about a rare cancer, it will probably get fewer reads than a story about panic-buying at Woolies. So, the key is to make it relatable to more people, even if the subject-matter is niche.
  • Conflict. Public anger. Political disagreements. Subsidy pleas. Calling out on the government to do x, y, z. The media love this.
  • Currency. A COVID-19 news story during the pandemic (although at this stage of the pandemic, it will probably need some novelty or conflict to stand out from the hundreds of these stories being received by journalists each day). Upcoming elections. Black Lives Matter. A news story about diabetes during National Diabetes Week (this isn’t original, and some journalists avoid this cliché, but there will be someone who appreciates the currency value).
  • Prominence. Someone with stature in the field such as a well-known disease area expert, a health consumer organisation CEO or a political figure is able to comment on the story.
  • Human interest. A powerful story on a real Australian (or other nationality) who has experienced the subject of the news article. “Melbourne mum-of-three Sophie was devastated to find out that …”
  • Proximity. This one speaks for itself, but essentially some media outlets will only publish your story if it happened locally. For example, the Herald Sun would prefer a news story featuring Melbourne-based people than if they were from Perth.

COVID-19 has lost its novelty factor and journalists now have more time to focus on something different. Your health news story can capture their attention, as long as they feature a couple of these core news values.

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