The news media serves a vital role providing both breaking news stories and analyzing those stories from a variety of perspectives: social, economic, health, political, policy, environmental, etc. Since the beginning of 2020, stories about various aspects of COVID-19 have dominated the news coverage globally but also in the U.S. media. Similar to media coverage in other countries [18, 19], the findings from this study indicate that the coverage from the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak was varied and captured the complexity of issues and concerns raised by the situation. The newspapers did not just report the numbers (number of infections, ventilators, deaths, economic losses) but they also reported the context, such as, impact on economy, efforts to slow the spread of infection, public health preparedness, switch to working from home, presence of health disparities, scientific search for reliable COVID-19 tests, and effect on supply chains.
The financial impact of COVID-19 was discussed frequently and in-depth which is not surprising given the business-focus of the Wall Street Journal, for example. Additionally, a significant number of articles focused on community mitigation strategies, such as precautions that members of the public can follow to avoid spreading the virus. This may indicate that during a sudden world-changing event causing widespread anxiety about health and economic issues, newspapers assume the added obligation of social responsibility and public service by providing the most accurate, verifiable, and factual reporting. In explaining this epidemic, newspapers often used key public health terms (i.e. epidemic, pandemic, outbreak, quarantine) to describe the events unfolding. While the early reports focused almost exclusively on the epidemiological situation overseas, the volume of articles focusing on the outbreaks and public health measures taken in the U.S. localities increased dramatically as the first cases arrived in the U.S.
In addition, this analysis captures views that have changed over time as more information was garnered, such as, the level of risk being minimized in early days and then emphasized later. Our review also reveals the fluid nature of information during this crisis. News included constantly changing updates (daily statistics of infection rate, death), as well as federal and state policies and recommendations, which may make difficult for the public to fully understand and adhere to the best practices for prevention. In times of isolation and stay-at-home orders, the public increasingly relies on the news media for information for both the data but also for community and health policies and rules.
The limitations of this study include the sampling method, which although was comprehensive, use of given key words may have excluded otherwise pertinent articles. In addition, the use of systematic sampling in March to adjust for the abundance of articles makes it difficult to quantify the rates at which these different topics appeared. Further, the inclusion of only three months in the earlier days of the outbreak does not allow for the most comprehensive picture of how things have changed over time. Nevertheless, this study offers further insight into the nature and scope of information conveyed during this critical time.
Newspapers are charged with maintaining balance during times when the information is changing quickly (masks are/are not essential for the public). The general public also has a lot to balance in terms of how much information they can absorb (especially when the news is consistently not hopeful), but also the level of numeracy needed to understand the graphic presentations of epidemiology is high. There is an additional challenge in interpreting information (some of which can be complex) and how it impacts them, their family, their work, everyday activities, etc.
The news has a mission to report what is going on in a way that is informative and accurate and present information in ways that their readers can absorb—particularly during times of health crisis. Providing information in a variety of formats—photos, charts, first-person accounts, news analysis, and news—allows readers to interact with this content in a variety of ways and also helps the news to strike that balance. The public should acknowledge that select news
outlets will frequenlty be sharing and updating consumers with the best-known information at the time, especially during a pandemic. Consequently, news organizations should acknowledge that this may contribute to readers’ anxiety, doubtfulness, and unfortunately the concept of “fake news.“
In conclusion, the COVID-19 pandemic has dominated newspaper coverage in 2020. Our article contributes to better understanding of how the U.S. media covered the early phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. Three most widely circulated newspapers in the U.S. covered the pandemic from multiple angles. Media plays a significant role in informing public and serves as a crucial link between public health authorities and public. The significant coverage of pandemic has implications on how the public perceive severity and impact of the public health crisis and can significantly influence public behaviors.