How COVID-19 becomes political: a comparison of news outlets' coronavirus coverage

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Yuhan Ma

'Students are doing grocery shopping at an Asian market'at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

COVID-19 ' the contagious respiratory illness caused by a novel coronavirus ' continues to spread worldwide. The extent of this outbreak is rapidly evolving and risk assessment changes daily. The first known patients in the U.S. contracted the virus while traveling in other countries or after exposure to someone who had been to China or Europe. Since then, 210 Countries and Territories around the world have reported a total of 2,827,981 confirmed cases of the coronavirus. The stay-at-home-order has greatly affected the economy and people's daily life and work. Zishan Cai, who works in Chicago, shared how his team members communicated while working from home. Students are also facing changes because of the pandemic. Victor Zhou studies at Purdue University, and he said that there were both good and bad changes. As the disease continues to spread in the U.S. creating all kinds of uncertainties to people's daily life, news outlets become their crucial tool to gain information about the issue that is affecting them all. Therefore, the discussion of how American news outlets are covering the story can be valuable and meaningful. This article will compare news articles from five mainstream news outlets in the U.S. on how coronavirus is being covered. The five outlets include CNN, Fox News, U.S.News, ABC News, and NBC News. Through a careful examination, it appears that American news outlets' coverage on the coronavirus is closely connected with political stances. 

CNN was founded in 1980 by American media proprietor Ted Turner as a 24-hour cable news channel. Upon its launch in 1980, CNN was the first television channel to provide 24-hour news coverage and was the first all-news television channel in the United States. In the last six months, CNN's news website has a total of 931.72 million visits, and each visit reaches 2.15 pages on average. Fox News is owned by the Fox News Group, which itself is owned by Fox Corporation. The channel was created by Australian-American media mogul Rupert Murdoch to appeal to a conservative audience, and the website was introduced in 1995. The website has 412.62 million total visits in the last six months and 2.93 pages per visit. Founded as a news magazine in 1933, U.S. News transitioned to primarily web-based publishing in 2010. The website has 49.78 million visits in the last six months and 2.34 pages per visit. ABC News is the news division of the American Broadcasting Company (ABC). ABCNews.com launched on May 15, 1997 by ABC News Internet Ventures, a joint venture between Starwave Corporation and ABC. In the last six months, the website has had 344.56K visits in total with each visit reaching 1.17 pages. NBC News is the news division of the American broadcast television network NBC. The division operates under NBCUniversal Broadcast, Cable, Sports and News, which is a subsidiary of Comcast. The news website has had a total visit number of 145.79 million with each visit reaching 1.53 pages. 

The major difference of the coverage by these five outlets is the sources they choose to include in their stories. With different sources supporting stories, we can sense very subtle but interesting differences in the message they are trying to deliver. For instance, on April 19, both U.S. News and NBC covered how governors are responding to Trump’s testing claims. They both used Republican and Democrat governors who asked for more coronavirus testings as their sources, but differently, NBC included public health experts' opinion to support its story, while U.S. News did not. U.S. News did mention some background information of death tolls from Johns Hopkins University, but there is no professional source suggesting that more testing was needed. As a reader, I think the article with health exports as sources will be more comprehensive and have more credibility. Besides, NBC ended the articles with Nancy Pelosi's remark on Trump's testing claims while U.S. News did not. It creates an effect for the article, which is more likely than the U.S. News article to make readers think that Trump was doing a terrible job on testing, as readers often tend to remember the most about the last part of an article. Although may not intentionally, choosing sources and putting them into certain places in an article create different kinds of attitudes which can influence readers. Covering the same story, CNN seems to have a more comprehensive view on the big picture as it covered how different groups were reacting, such as governors, CDC, states, and residents.  A variety of sources were included, which helped readers to see every side of the story. FOX News covered it in a very different way. There were not many other sources besides Trump himself. The majority of sources came from what he said in briefings and on Twitter. The article looks more like a timeline of what Trump has done these past days instead of a whole picture with voices from different aspects. The title and several Trump's interactions with reporters that were discussed in the article also seem to help build up Trump's image, regardless of whether intentional or not. On the same day, ABC News did not publish articles covering the exact same story, but it covered residents protesting stay-at-home orders, which also appeared in the articles mentioned before. The sources included protestors, president Trump, some governors and social media accounts. Compared to the other articles that also covered the protests, such as the articles from CNN and FOX News, ABC had more voices from the protestors except for Trump and governors, which provided readers with a more complete view of the issue. 

There are several similarities among these articles. First, all of them are multimedia, which means there are at least texts and pictures, and four out of five of them also have videos. Hyperlinks are included for further reference, and all of them provide some background information before going into the actual story. The use of other elements, such as maps and social media, also helps tell the story. The style of writing in all of them is pretty clear, concise, and conversational. Important information is all presented in a straightforward way, which helps readers to grasp what they need to know without spending a lot of time. 

All of these news outlets have experienced some changes since they first started covering the coronavirus. Specifically, Fox News, ABC News, and NBC News have all opened an entire page for all latest coronavirus news, which viewers can access by simply clicking the link on their front pages. This was not developed when the disease first hit the United States. There is no link to another page for all Coronavirus news on CNN and U.S. News's front pages, but stories about coronavirus often take up their largest space. Furthermore, almost all of these websites observed an increase in the number of coronavirus news in their politics category, while several months ago, more of the stories were found in their health category. This may due to the increased number of new policies implemented since the disease started developing in America. 

The pandemic has brought uncertainties to the United States. Many people, including international students studying in the U.S., are in need of health supplies. Xue Lin, who works for the Chinese Student & Scholars Association at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said that the health supplies they received from the Chinese government is far from sufficient. Minnie Tang, a resident in Chicago, felt that her work and life have become more difficult than usual. After my comparison, it has come to clear that the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States is not only a health-concerned issue anymore, especially during such an uncertain time when people's opinions are easy to be swayed. It is closely linked to the politics in this country, and different news outlets may have shown different political tendencies while covering the issue. For example, when covering one same story which I mentioned above, FOX News's article was written in a way more in favor of Trump compared to the U.S. News and NBC. The way they cover such issues often greatly affect how viewers think about the politicians relevant to the stories, and global pandemics like the COVID-19 are sometimes used to influence viewers' attitudes and build up politicians or political parties' image. The intent to use coronavirus as a political tool is apparent especially when President Trump played out a propaganda video during his coronavirus press conference. Under all kinds of uncertainty because of the pandemic, news outlets are creating multiple and complex effects other than simply delivering messages to their audiences. 

Therefore, it is important for us to think about whether the public is seeing the whole picture of this pandemic, or whether they have gotten the exact information they need to know? How can we make sure that our news outlets are sending out messages that are totally unbiased? Or, do they even have to be 'unbiased?' Does having a certain political tendency make a news outlet not real news? Ever since we started studying journalism, we have been told that independence is part of our code of ethics. But we are never told how we should measure independence. What's the definition of independence and unbiased that we should use to identify which outlet is doing real journalism and which is not? Where should we draw that line? What's more, it is good that these news outlets are letting us see the broad picture of this global pandemic, but how about the small pictures? We often see stories about the total death numbers or new government policies, however, we are less frequent to learn about individuals' lives under the pandemic. What's the life like for a college student whose both parents and brother are all infected by the virus? (This is something that actually happened at UIUC.)  Or will small business owners be able to make it out of this difficult time? It is necessary, especially for journalists, to know that this pandemic is not just about numbers or politics. Rather, it is about each person whose life has been affected. Based on my observation, it is inevitable that the pandemic will continue to become a tool for news outlets and politicians to shape readers' attitudes and opinions, and any kind of global issues, regardless of whether it is about economy, war, or public health, will have a significant power in influencing mass audiences' opinions when covered by news outlets. The effects can be either positive or negative to the society, based on how these issues are being covered. 

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