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COVID-19: The News Stories Driving Online Engagement

23 March 2020 10:30

Provenance partner NewsWhip is monitoring coverage of COVID-19 on the web and social media. COVID-19 has been one of the most written about events in the modern era, with more than 1.5 million articles covering the topic publishing since the beginning of January this year.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has had a massive impact on almost every area of contemporary society, media not least of all. News agendas have been dominated by matters pertaining to the virus and this has not been limited to current affairs with culture, sport and lifestyle news coverage all coloured by the impact of the pandemic. Indeed, the World Health Organisation has described itself as fighting against an 'infodemic' of abundant news and disinformation relating to the virus. With this in mind, it is worth examining an overview of the coverage of the COVID-19.

NewsWhip published a report on online coverage of the virus and the nuances of social media engagement with this news is particularly revealing. First and foremost, the report speaks to the staggering scale of the coverage and of online audiences' engagement with it — by the end of February, there were over 500 million engagements per week with COVID-19 related news. Among the stories that attracted the most engagement were pieces explaining the cancellation of major events and the importance of social distancing. The popularity of such pieces certainly bodes well for the role of the news media in educating the public about combating the spread of the virus.

Mapping trends over such a wide scope of coverage is an uncertain exercise, but the report does point towards certain key differences in the ways in which left and right leaning news outlets have covered the pandemic. The latter took a more optimistic view with regard to the economic impact of the crisis, for instance, focusing on stock markets bouncing back. Right leaning news outlets were also significantly more likely to feature articles decrying the media's role in fostering panic over the virus. Amid this tide of news coverage, however, misinformation remains an issue, as the report draws attention to the high circulation of satirical coverage that may be mistaken for genuine news by unwary audiences, and the abiding, erroneous association between Corona beer and the virus and the conspiracy theory that the virus 'leaked' from a Chinese lab.

Ultimately, the scale of coverage and engagement points to the independent media as a key actor in the efforts to combat COVID-19. News editors and media watchdogs must remain vigilant and proactive in helping to ensure an active and well-informed public.

Download the NewsWhip report here.

Colm Kearns is a Post Doctoral Researcher at Dublin City University's (DCU) Institute for Future Media and Journalism (FuJo).