Media trends reveal COVID domination, patterns in climate and racial justice coverage

Graph of news coverage

The ceaseless pandemic. Impending high-stakes elections. Racial justice protests. Apocalyptic fires. A record hurricane season. It’s no secret which stories are dominating media trends, but we wondered about the relative coverage of these topics, and which aspects of climate change and the racial justice movement are rising to the top.

To gain insight into those questions, we ran several sets of keywords through Muck Rack’s Trends research tool, which lets us track the volume of coverage containing those terms over time. Here’s what we found.

COVID-19 changed everything, and coverage reflects that

At no point since mid-February has any topic come close to dominating U.S. news coverage the way the COVID-19 pandemic has, as the media trend comparisons in Chart 1 show. That makes sense, given its toll of trauma and disruption, but the gap in this graph between COVID-19 coverage and all other major stories is startling.

Chart 1: Coverage trends for major news stories in 2020 (number of articles over time)

The terms racial and race peaked in June as the protest movement took hold, and it was easily the second-most covered topic through July. The fact that the phrase racial justice hovers at the bottom most of the time may tell us something about how the movement has been framed—and how much perceptions need to change. Election coverage, which our unsuspecting January brains thought would consume the year, is finally climbing and may catch up with COVID-19.

Racial justice trends in business coverage reveal much talk, less action

To get a sense of how racial justice is appearing in the business and finance context—where there’s potential to move the needle fast—we tracked the phrase with six modifiers in Chart 2. No surprise for cynics: racial justice appears most frequently with statement, and the coverage curve is steep, dropping off sharply after June. Glass half full: in relation to business, the term has gained some purchase.

Chart 2: Racial justice trends in business coverage (number of articles over time)

Climate coverage took a dive but is trending upward

Climate change is another topic we thought would be big this year, particularly in connection with the Nov. 3 elections. That hasn’t been the case, and the media trends are a mixed bag. Compared with other major stories, climate change has ranked near or at the bottom (see Chart 1). Coverage of climate trended down and stayed there, despite its connections to pretty much everything, as Chart 3 shows. It’s also dispiriting to see the limited coverage of climate solutions like renewable energy. On the plus side, it’s heartening to see a recent upswing in climate coverage. The strongest focus is on the essential lever of policy (in purple) and there was a sharp uptick in relation to the election (blue).

Chart 3: Coverage trends for climate change (number of articles over time)

Everything else: there are still ways to tell your story

So these media trends mean there’s no room for anything else? Not exactly. We continue to see opportunities for mission-led brands to break through with the following approaches.

  • Visionary thinking: What’s next (trends that will ramp up, new avenues for progress, etc.)? How could we have a better recovery? What issues will your sector act on?
  • First-person stories of going through this crisis: how you or your stakeholders have adapted, pivoted and otherwise survived.
  • Solution stories, particularly if they’re related to the pandemic or racial justice.
  • Industry focus: trade publications are still reporting on their niche—often with a major news angle, but that’s not necessary to earn coverage.

As with everything else in this strange, unsettling time, we find it’s best to pursue media attention from a place of generosity, flexibility and patience. Give knowledge freely, be willing to shift strategy and focus, and prepare for a long haul.

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