Tow Center

The Tow Center COVID-19 Newsletter

March 23, 2020
Photo: Adobe Stock

Welcome to the weekly Tow Center COVID-19 newsletter, tracking news of the virus through research and analysis.

Our in-house analysis for the week comes from Tow’s research director Pete Brown, who studied posts to Facebook of stories by the two largest cable news networks, Fox News and CNN, about the novel coronavirus.

Among the 20 most shared posts about COVID-19 made from the two networks’ Facebook pages, just two were from Fox News. The headlines were: “President Donald J. Trump addresses the nation on America’s coronavirus response” and “President Donald J. Trump has directed his quarterly salary be used by the Department of Health and Human Services in the effort to combat the coronavirus outbreak, the White House said Tuesday.” Brown found that posts from CNN about the coronavirus persistently accounted for a higher percentage of all Facebook posts on the topic than Fox News.

Chart A chart illustrates how coronavirus coverage grew to dominate the two outlets’ Facebook posts over time. Since the pair’s Facebook posts about COVID-19 began in the latter part of January, the proportion of posts about the virus made by CNN was consistently higher than Fox until early-mid March. In early March, a far higher proportion of CNN’s posts contained coronavirus keywords. But from March 10 to March 13, the proportion of Fox’s Facebook posts that contained coronavirus keywords surged from 29% to 73%. By March 16 it had hit at 89%.

As Brown notes:

An important caveat in all of this that the CNN Facebook page has 15 million more likes than those for Fox News.

However, Fox News is perfectly capable of holding its own on Facebook. If we remove the coronavirus keywords, the second most shared post from either network’s Facebook page since December 1, 2019 was from Fox News: ‘”This is a president who acts boldly. This is a president who carried out a strike that was so precise, so strategic, nothing else was hurt except the car in which that terrorist was riding.’ Representative Mike Kelly praised President Donald J. Trump for the airstrike that killed Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani ahead of the House vote on a resolution that limits President Trump’s military action against Iran. Rep. Kelly went on to rip into House Democrats for being more worried “about the loss of an election in 2020 than the loss of American lives, and the continued loss of lives around the world by one of the worst terrorists of all time.” That was shared 323,228 times. The fourth most shared was also from Fox: “Los Angeles County officials hold a press conference to provide details on the helicopter crash that killed NBA superstar Kobe Bryant, and four others. (Courtesy: KABC)” (231,784).

Chart A

Reactions—that is, likes, angry faces, hearts, and Facebook’s other user-assigned emojis—to Facebook posts by viewers began to grow in February for CNN but, again, not until well into March for Fox, per Chart B. CNN also logged the biggest story so far in terms of Facebook’s reaction metric, and did so well before the pandemic reached the community transmission state in the US: on 24 January, 2020 at 5pm, shortly after Washington State confirmed its first case of coronavirus. The post received a little under 1.1 million reactions; it was an episode of the network’s Facebook-exclusive show Go There in which reporter David Culver traveled to Wuhan to report on its lockdown in response to the outbreak.

Chart B

The 20 most popular stories on Facebook from Fox and CNN, in order, were:

Rank Story Network
1 Fear and anxiety in epicenter of Wuhan coronavirus outbreak CNN
2 South Korea sets up drive-through coronavirus testing CNN
3 President Donald J. Trump addresses the nation on America’s coronavirus response. FOX
4 Fear and panic as coronavirus spreads across the world CNN
5 White House advises public to avoid groups of more than 10, asks people to stay away from bars and restaurants CNN
6 Chinese doctor who sounded Wuhan virus alarm is critically ill, hospital says, after state media reported he had died CNN
7 FDA approves new test that could detect coronavirus in about 45 minutes CNN
8 Scientists race against time to find a coronavirus vaccine CNN
9 Hear from those under lockdown as the coronavirus spreads across the world CNN
10 With Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium closed to humans, penguins get to explore and visit other animals CNN
11 A coronavirus patient refused to quarantine, so deputies are surrounding his house to force him to CNN
12 The best prevention against the coronavirus is still washing your hands. Here’s the proper way to do it CNN
13 Racism and xenophobia are on the rise as the coronavirus spreads CNN
14 Romney proposes giving $1,000 to every American adult as coronavirus response measure CNN
15 Six people have died from coronavirus in Washington state CNN
16 Trump donates $100G salary for coronavirus relief FOX
17 As coronavirus spreads, cities across the world go on lockdown CNN
18 Infected people without symptoms might be driving the spread of coronavirus more than we realized CNN
19 CNN Global Town Hall – Coronavirus: Fact and Fears with Facebook and Instagram CNN
20 Drone footage shows empty roads in Italy following the coronavirus outbreak CNN

More from the news:

  • Facebook plans to offer its employees $1,000 apiece in cash to help mitigate expenses during the coronavirus outbreak, according to The Information; it has offices in California and New York, both of which have been hard-hit by the disease. The social network and advertising firm announced last week its plans to distribute a further $1 million to local newsrooms in grants of no more than $5,000 to help offset reporting expenses associated with coverage of the outbreak. The company has widely contributed to the confusion and discord around the virus, with legitimate news stories marked as misinformation by a software bug, and by allowing falsehoods to proliferate unchecked on WhatsApp.
  • YouTube, at least as important a vector for medical disinformation as Facebook’s various services, announced that it would display “trustworthy coronavirus information” on its homepage, according to The Verge. The company has distributed videos claiming coronavirus is caused by 5G radiation, among other falsehoods.
  • New York governor Andrew M. Cuomo, after a week of claiming the spotlight from an increasingly erratic Donald Trump, has begun sending constituents an email newsletter. Cuomo’s office distributing public health advice, information about school and business closures, news of Cuomo’s manoeuvrings with the White House, and, on Sunday, a photograph of a hapless biker with the caption “Some New Yorkers at Prospect Park in Brooklyn were not following social distancing rules of keeping 6 feet from others in public.” (Bold the governor’s.)
  • Reuters reported that a Russian disinformation campaign sought to amplify rumors that COVID-19 was a Chinese bioweapon engineered in a lab in Wuhan; the rumors have been firmly debunked in British medical journal The Lancet by biologists who recognize characteristics of the strain from studies of diseases in bats.
  • Multiple sites dedicated to tracking the disease have emerged from reputable universities in the last two weeks; one of the best and most popular isn’t the official work of the universities where its researchers work: Stanford’s Bilguunzaya Battogtokh and Virginia Tech’s James Yun have built, a website that updates a detailed map of the world with new cases, statistics, and heat mapping every hour. For an officially sanctioned version, Johns Hopkins has a full sub-site,, devoted to distributing verified information about the virus.

Finally, a note from Tow fellow Damian Radcliffe and his research partner Ryan Wallace about a new survey for which they are seeking respondents from now until April 6 (you can still respond on the 6th until 11:59):

Against this challenging and uncertain backdrop, it’s essential that we understand how long journalism is evolving, so that the industry can be supported by policy makers, funders and researchers.

To help us do this, today we are launching a new survey asking local newspaper journalists to tell us about their jobs, how they’re changing, and their hopes for the future.  The findings from this will build on earlier research from 2016-17, enabling us to see what’s changed—and what hasn’t—during the past 3-4 years.

This new study gives us an opportunity to compare and contrast the experience of local journalists in late 2016 and early 2020, while also highlighting characteristics that are unique to the contemporary media landscape. 

We believe these insights will be of interest to funders, policy makers, researchers, newsrooms and journalism schools alike. By offering a snapshot of life at local newsrooms, we hope to inspire further opportunities for intervention, training and support, as well as ensuring that the reality of life at small market newspapers is better understood by both researchers and those moving into this industry.

We also hope that our research will inspire researchers in other countries to take a similar look at their own local newspapers. The original study was a catalyst for similar efforts in Austria and Canada

If we believe that local journalism is important, then an important component of American journalism—the voice and experience of journalists working in local newsrooms across the country—needs to be heard. 

Because of this, we hope that local journalists across the United States, whether they took part in the original survey or not, will participate in this study

We look forward to sharing the findings of this research with survey participants and CJR readers in the summer. 

—Damian Radcliffe and Ryan Wallace

That’s all for this week. We have a soundtrack, courtesy of the Columbia Journalism Review’s Alexandria Neason and the rest of the CJR team (you can blame me for “Sigourney Weaver” by John Grant and a couple others), and we have a light preliminary double bill: Ben Smith’s deep dive into Fox News’s coverage of the pandemic and the Murdoch scion assigned to steer the ship, and Paul Farhi and Sarah Ellison’s examination of the network’s sudden about-face in its coverage.

Sam Thielman is the former Tow editor at the Columbia Journalism Review, and a reporter and critic based in New York. He is the creator, with film critic Alissa Wilkinson, of Young Adult Movie Ministry, a podcast about Christianity and movies, and his writing has been featured in The Guardian, Talking Points Memo, and Variety, among others.