How the media covered two pandemics — COVID-19 and systemic racism

Only one thing proved able to stop news coverage of the coronavirus pandemic, or at least allow outlets to focus on a different type of story — the revitalization of a movement to stop another pandemic that has long plagued this country: systemic racism.

Soon after Jan. 20, the day of the first confirmed case of the coronavirus in the United States, through May 24 — the day before George Floyd was held to the ground, with a knee on his neck, pleading for his life to an officer who was supposed to protect him — the main topic on any news station was COVID-19.

After the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put out a press release[1] confirming the first case had made its way to the United States from Wuhan, China, the race to provide coverage was on.

How many confirmed cases were there? In which states? Where could it be expected next? What should the U.S. government do to protect its citizens? Should we be looking at other countries to gain better insight into how they were dealing with the pandemic?

Very few stories distracted citizens from the outbreak. When those unicorn stories did appear, the news focused on them only briefly.

Tom Brady’s announcement[2], on March 25, after much speculation, that he had signed a contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and would be moving his family to Florida was one of those stories. Bernie Sanders’ official announcement[3] that he was ending his candidacy for presidency on April 8 was another story that disrupted COVID-19 coverage. These stories were enough to distract newsrooms from the coronavirus reports, at least for one news cycle, but there are very few others that pivoted coverage for longer than 24 hours.

The next couple months slowly marched past. The number of COVID-19-related cases continued to rise, more people died, millions lost their jobs, cities debated whether or not to shut down and, eventually, when or how to reopen. Everything revolved around COVID-19. Even stories about baking[4] and exercising[5] had a COVID-19 angle to them.

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