As weeks passed, though, it was clear that the virus was far from eradicated. The United States passed its 100,000th coronavirus-related death at the end of May and the 2 millionth infection Wednesday. The rate of deaths has slowed, as has the rate of new infections, but in a fifth of states numbers are starting to climb back up.
It’s an ongoing crisis, though not an evolving one. So when protests emerged across the country in response to the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck, media attention quickly shifted to focus on the death, the protests, acts of violence and the broader narrative of race and policing. The emergence of the protests spurred a quick redirection of the media’s focus, though racism is, of course, a more endemic problem than the virus.
This initial shift in attention and, as the protests have dimmed, a perceived shift back to coverage of the coronavirus has been identified by Trump allies as evidence of media bias against the president — either because it suggests an insincere concern about the virus or because it shows how rapidly the media wants to emphasize stories that cast Trump in a negative light.
What the shifts actually reveal is how even a historic crisis such as the pandemic can take secondary importance to outbreaks of tension and violence in American cities. That said, comparing how media outlets have shifted what they’re focusing on is revelatory — especially when we also look at where Trump’s focus has been.
Using data from the Internet Archive compiled by GDELT, we can see what MSNBC has been covering each day since Feb. 1. We added a few key events that have signaled shifts in the story line either about the novel coronavirus or about the protests, including Trump’s first of several dozen daily briefings about the virus, the day on which the NBA announced it was canceling its season due to the virus, Trump’s initial announcement about reopening the economy, the Floyd death and the day on which the country saw its 100,000th coronavirus-related death. We checked for several terms, including “covid,” referring to covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, and “antifa,” a reference to a loose-knit movement of anti-racist and anti-fascist militants.
You can see that Trump’s initial briefing overlapped with a spike in coverage from MSNBC, which then faded a bit. When the NBA canceled its season — a mark of how seriously the virus was suddenly being taken — that surge resumed. It carried on through May, dipping only a bit as a constant subject of network coverage. (The GDELT data shows the percentage of 15-second segments in a day in which the subjects were covered.) Soon after Floyd’s death, the coverage shifted. In recent days, coronavirus coverage has increased again.
At CNN, the pattern is similar. CNN kept up a heavier focus on the virus over the past few months, with that focus shifting after Floyd’s death.
You’ll notice those other two lines, too. CNN talked about China in the context of the virus fairly consistently over the past few months, but those references understandably made up more of the virus-related mentions before the virus began to spread rapidly in the United States. CNN, like MSNBC, also has made some mention of riots, rioters and antifa — in part, covering Trump’s mentions of those subjects. We’ll get to him in a second.
Compare that coverage with that from Fox News. Fox, too, saw a surge in coverage of the virus after Trump’s first briefing. After Trump announced that businesses should reopen and as states began to do so, Fox started talking about the virus less frequently. At the same time, it has spent more time linking the virus to China, something that Trump has at times emphasized.
After Floyd’s death, the network also covered the protests. But Fox News has been much more likely to talk about riots and antifa than CNN or MSNBC.
Fox Business amplifies the trends seen on its sister network. It’s been far more likely to talk about China in the context of the virus and was more likely to talk about riots and antifa at one point this month than any other subject. (That was on June 1, the day that the Trump administration forcibly cleared largely peaceful protesters from a square north of the White House.)
Trump’s focus has looked more like Fox Business’s than anything else. We looked at a slightly different metric: mentions of the same terms as a percentage of all of the words Trump tweeted or said on a given day. On days when Trump didn’t say much — no events and few tweets — the percentages can be higher than you’d expect. That explains the spike in “virus” mentions shortly after the reopening announcement on the graph below.
While Trump hasn’t completely ignored the virus in the past two weeks, more of his communications have been focused on riots, rioters and antifa than on the virus. If the media’s attention has begun to shift back to the virus, Trump’s hasn’t.
Why not? Certainly in part for the same reason that he was eager to reopen the economy: He thinks it’s better political turf. While there’s little evidence that self-appointed members of antifa played a significant role in the violence that followed the protests a week ago, Trump has repeatedly insisted that they did. This allows him to fight against what he sees as a left-wing opponent — and to focus on something other than the slowly accruing death toll from the virus.
It’s not Trump’s job to communicate about every emerging news story, though at times it seems like he’s eager to do so. The media’s shift from the acute crisis of the Black Lives Matter protests back to the chronic problem of the coronavirus reflects how news organizations operate. Trump’s decision not to make a similar shift reflects where he would like the American public to focus its attention.