COVID-19 in the news: Which U.S. media outlets led way in early coverage of coronavirus?


Extensive analysis of major news organizations reveals some surprising findings when it comes to who covered COVID-19 from the outset — and who didn’t.


CHICAGO — Rewind back to January or February of this year and the coronavirus seemed like an obscure outbreak impacting China. Americans didn’t pay much mind to it because it didn’t effect their lives — but also because the media hype was rather tepid. We all know how the following months played out, and now we’re left wondering how we were all so unprepared for what happened in March.

Researchers are working to better understand how the coronavirus crept up on Americans like a waking nightmare. To that end, marketing firm Digital Third Coast performed an in-depth analysis of online COVID-19 news coverage between January 6th and March 6th. The study, Waking Up to Covid-19: An Analysis of American Media Coverage, uses The Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, an online tool that captures snapshots of web pages as they appeared on any given prior date.

The report examines 18 of the nation’s biggest online news sources to see how quickly and seriously they started to cover COVID-19 in the beginning of the year. For each news source, coronavirus-related headlines clearly visible at first glance on their homepages were counted across the aforementioned time-period.

Digital Third Coast reports that this mid-page story in the Wall Street Journal from Jan. 6 is the first in the U.S. to cover the coronavirus. (Click to enlarge)

Early birds

Right off the bat, the results of the analysis make one thing very clear: financial news sources were the first to pick up on COVID-19. It’s believed this is because these outlets knew the virus would absolutely devastate the global economy.

Bloomberg News takes the gold for early coverage of the virus. The organization beat out any other news source between January and March, displaying 49 articles on COVID-19 prominently. After that, The Washington post comes in second (32 stories), followed by Reuters (31) and The Wall Street Journal (31). In fact, by the end of January, Bloomberg, The WSJ, and Reuters account for an unbelievable 46% of all coronavirus U.S. online news articles readily displayed on homepages.

Where was everyone else? For reference, within the examined time period, ABC News displayed 23 COVID-19 stories on the top portion of their homepage; the New York Times had 21; CBS News 18; NBC News 17; and Buzzfeed published just one.

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To be clear, these numbers are not the total amount of COVID-19 articles published by these sources. These are the number of articles that appear “above the fold.” That means the headlines sit among the top stories and easily readable without having to scroll down from the homepage.

Bloomberg, Reuters tops in COVID-19 news coverage

Now that we’ve covered above the fold stories, what about lead stories? When investigators looked into how many news outlets displayed a COVID-19 post as the top story on their home page, Reuters and Bloomberg again led the pack with six top stories each. Next came ABC News (5), The NY Times (5), and The Wall Street Journal (4).

Image credit: Digital Third Coast

It’s also worth mentioning that the NY Times and ABC News clearly recognized what was coming. Both outlets had four straight weeks of COVID-19 lead stories heading into the middle of March 2020.

Finally, investigators also counted the total number of coronavirus articles available on news platforms’ homepages. So, even if the article sits buried at the bottom of the page, it counts for this analysis.

Once again, Bloomberg and Reuters claim first and second on the list, with 81 and 78 stories respectively. The third place spot goes to Breitbart News with 70 COVID-19 stories. After that comes the Wall Street Journal (58), NBC News (56), and CBS News (54). Perhaps surprisingly, the Washington Post and NY Times have only about half the number of stories as the leaders. Buzzfeed remains in last, with just 12 articles.

So why do some major news outlets like CNN or the Associated Press not appear in the study? The authors say some websites restrict the Internet Archive from using their content.

The team behind the project admits that not all organizations operate the same, so some may have had more opportunities to display COVID-19 news on the front page. Additionally, the world of news media is a fast paced one, and it’s certainly understandable that at the time the coronavirus probably didn’t initially pose as a big deal. Still, all things considered, these results suggest that outlets should be more diligent about emerging health crises in the future.

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