Breaking vs. Persistent News: COVID-19 Coverage Needs To Change

In this age of widespread media bias, it’s clear that many major news outlets have a political angle and are selective with their reporting. Now, given the Black Lives Matter protests, the coronavirus pandemic, and the upcoming presidential election, some outlets seem to be finding it even harder to provide adequate coverage. 

2020 has brought challenges for the news media industry that have never been seen before. COVID-19 has been reported on daily since January by sources all over the world.

However, the outbreak of protests against police brutality across the country following the death of George Floyd late last month caused coverage of the pandemic to disappear from the headlines.

The national reaction spurred by Floyd’s death was unprecedented, with protests occurring in all 50 states and some police departments and local governments proposing anti-racism and anti-brutality legislation. The situation called for immediate and thorough coverage. 

Between May 30 and June 5, highly circulated newspapers like USA Today, The New York Times, and, as well as The Charlotte Observer and The Los Angeles Times sparsely mentioned COVID-19 on their front pages. On June 11, 17 days after the initial protests began in Minneapolis, Fox News’s homepage showed only one coronavirus breaking news story and the rest were protest-related. 

Major cable TV networks like CNN, Fox News and MSNBC removed the COVID-19 ticker showing updated infection and death counts, except for in a few brief instances. Similar to the newspapers, TV coverage focused on the riots, protests and the political turmoil happening across cities in the US. As of June 5, those cable channels had not resumed displaying the running count of the number of people dying and affected by COVID-19. 

Unfortunately, the number of cases has spiked in several states since the media began focusing on the protests. Forbes reported on June 8 that coronavirus infections were on the rise in 21 states, with cases spiking in California, Arizona and North Carolina. Between May 26 and 29 there were nearly 128,000 new cases of COVID-19 and nearly 5,000 additional deaths from the virus in the US, according to Statista.

The protests caused the news media to put coronavirus news on the backburner, despite no slowing in the spread of the disease. 

This gap in reporting is due to several characteristics of the virus that are not compatible with the traditional breaking news reporting style, which only works with local events that last for a short duration. 

First, the pandemic is not local. There are more than 8 million infections confirmed in 188 countries and territories, including at least 436,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University. COVID-19 is a global phenomenon, and when cases rise in one part of the world, that is important news that could affect other parts. When events such as natural disasters or regional conflict occur they are considered newsworthy for the affected region only. 

Additionally, the pandemic is not expected to end anytime soon. Experts are saying that the virus will likely become endemic at some point and the Washington Post reports that “even after a vaccine is discovered and deployed, the coronavirus will likely remain for decades to come, circulating among the world’s population.” 

These circumstances cannot fit into the traditional story structure of a beginning, middle and end because there may never be a clearly marked conclusion.

Finally, the story is not about one individual or group. The pandemic affects everyone and readers have a responsibility to listen and learn from the news. The news media is calling on viewers to take preventive measures and do their best to protect themselves and others. The ongoing reporting is not only intended for consumption like most stories but also serves as a call to action. 

It is not only irresponsible of the news media to stop coverage of the coronavirus, it is also dangerous. The news media communicates important information like the death toll and public health decisions regarding the disease to the general public. Many people around the world rely on the news to stay safe and healthy during the pandemic. COVID-19 is a global event that involves everyone and demands continuous attention, and for this reason, should be classified as “persistent” news. It is different from the normal breaking news story that circulates for around a week and then fades from the news cycle. 

This unique situation calls for a new system of reporting where multiple breaking news events can be displayed before the backdrop of a persistent news event. Journalists need to learn to balance these two types of stories until it is possible to remove COVID-19 from the headlines. 

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