Covering COVID-19: How global pandemic dominated Australia’s news landscape

Researchers from the News and Media Research Centre (N&MRC) at the University of Canberra have analysed over 2.5 million news items about COVID-19 for the Covering COVID-19: How Australian media reported the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 report, released today.

The N&MRC partnered with media monitoring company Streem to analyse online, television, radio and print media between January and November 2020 to determine how news media reporting contributed to the construction of the COVID-19 crisis in the context of the societal forces and factors that shape news.

“The COVID-19 pandemic’s scope, severity and ubiquity gave news audiences an unquenchable thirst for news, while intense and relentless media reporting formed the backdrop to the public’s everyday experience of the pandemic,” said lead author, Associate Professor David Nolan.

The report found that political leaders, health experts and journalists co-constructed news about the pandemic for Australian news audiences.

“In the early stages of the pandemic, health messages were prioritised, with news coverage reflecting a consensus among political leaders, media editors and health experts that arguably contributed to the Australian public’s trust in health advice and the success of its response,” said Dr Nolan.

Streem Corporate Affairs Lead Conal Hanna said Coronavirus has been an unprecedented news story in the digital age for the volume, longevity and saturation of coverage.

“The virus was being mentioned in a staggering 80 per cent of stories published at times last year, and even today is still mentioned in about 30 per cent of all stories, which is the equivalent of the peak of bushfire coverage in January 2020,” he said.

Australia’s COVID-19 crisis was reported as both a health and economic issue. According to the report, in terms of sheer prominence, coverage of health issues tended to rise and fall with the peaks of COVID-19 case totals in Australia, while economic issues like employment were evergreen topics of high reporting throughout the year.

Dr Nolan said that the focus and volume of COVID-19 reporting changed over the course of 2020.

“News coverage peaked in March 2020 with 288,362 stories produced about COVID-19, but by November the total volume of stories was 191,991,” he said.

“The initial focus on informational news reporting public health messages was replaced mid-year by politically-driven topics, reflecting a return to a watchdog role for journalists.”

The report also found that news coverage was shaped by the Federal Government. Although the Prime Minister was the most-reported individual overall, as Victoria become the epicentre of the crisis, its Premier, Daniel Andrews, received more coverage than the Prime Minister from July to October 2020.

“Not all of this coverage was positive, however, and as 2020 progressed, we saw a shift from stories that reflected political unity and broad consensus of purpose, and a return to ‘politics as usual’,” said Dr Nolan.

The report indicates a return to traditional news cycles from August 2020 onwards, dominated by political issues as the most prominent matters of concern, alongside reporting of measures taken to ensure economic recovery, and the creation of vaccines.

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