Research: COVID-19 coverage needs changing

By Katalina Deaven

Center for Media Engagement

Austin, Texas, USA

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As people adjust to the ongoing presence of coronavirus in everyday life, their appetites for news stories on the subject are changing. And so are the stories newsrooms choose to cover. The Center for Media Engagement’s latest report looks at how Facebook posts about coronavirus from local news outlets and audience information needs shifted between March and April.

The result? Audiences are starting to lose interest in coronavirus stories. And newsrooms aren’t covering the virus in as many of their articles.

There are also shifts in what newsrooms cover when they do post about the subject, as well as shifts in the stories audiences want. Interests overlap in several areas, but the topics where coverage and audience interests don’t align provide opportunities for newsrooms to rethink coverage to better meet audience needs.

The information people want and how their needs are changing

Many of the coverage topics were also seen as less important in April than they were in March. Of our 22 topics covered in the first survey, all but five were rated as significantly lower in importance in the second survey.

For the topics people wanted to see most, priorities stayed relatively the same between the two months. In our second survey, people still wanted to know about local health updates and information about local entities providing critical services in people’s day-to-day lives.

  • We also asked about four additional news topics in April:
  • Timing of lifted restrictions.
  • Affect on the local economy.
  • How people are providing emotional support to others.
  • How people are coping with activities such as homeschooling and working from home.

This chart shows how these new topics, as well as the original topics, ranked in importance to survey takers.

Comparison of local newsroom coverage on Facebook

Facebook posts from local newsrooms aligned with audience preferences on several topics. Audiences wanted — and newsrooms provided — information about how local and state governments are responding, the number of people testing positive in the local area, and the number of local deaths.

There were several topics, however, newsrooms frequently covered that weren’t as important to audiences, including how non-essential businesses (e.g., gyms, churches, etc.) are responding to the coronavirus and the local economic effects and projections.

Audiences did want information about testing and local hospital and health care facility responses, but newsrooms did not provide many stories on these topics in March or April. The areas where audience interest and news coverage didn’t align provide an opportunity for newsrooms to consider whether their coverage is meeting audience needs.

Takeaways for newsrooms

Audience interest in coronavirus news and Facebook posts focused on local news about the virus were both down in April. However, there are still opportunities for newsrooms to cover stories viewers want to see when posting about the pandemic.

As we’ve stressed before, audiences want local information about coronavirus. Of the local news-related Facebook posts about coronavirus, only 61% were local stories (down slightly from 68% in March). The rest of the posts were international, national, or out-of-state stories. We encourage newsrooms to keep in mind that people turn to local news for information they can’t get from national outlets.

For newsrooms curious about engagement, Facebook posts about local political disagreement over the pandemic received the most likes, comments, and shares in April. In March, posts about health information and government responses to the virus received the most engagement.

Banner image courtesy of Gustavo Fring from Pexels.

About Katalina Deaven