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

The 24-hour news cycle only moved away from the coronavirus once it was clear that people would not stop fighting for racial justice.

July 10, 2020
Category: Ethics & Trust

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 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, 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 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 and exercising had a COVID-19 angle to them.

While it doesn’t seem the cure for coronavirus will make an appearance in the near future, many hope a cure to another pandemic that has been brewing and unsolved for over 400 years will come within their lifetimes — especially now that it is a sexier story than its health-related cousin.

This was the one topic that was able to shift the focus of the news cycle for more than 24 hours.

The media could ask the same questions that it asked about COVID-19 about police brutality, systemic injustices with regard to modern-day lynching and the Black Lives Matter movement.

How many confirmed cases of police killings were there? Is this just in 2020 or should we be looking at the years before? In which states is this form of modern-day lynching most prevalent? Where could this virus, the one that does not value Black lives, be expected next? What should the U.S. government do to protect its Black citizens and why hasn’t it been done by now? Should we be looking at other countries to gain better insight on how they’re dealing with the pandemic? Because they are certainly looking at the United States and protesting for Black lives.

When yet another brutal killing of an unarmed Black man by a white police officer surfaced on the internet and went viral as people demanded justice for George Floyd and his family, America’s attention — and especially the media’s — swiftly shifted to the injustices that could no longer be ignored.

“I can’t breathe.”

“Please let me live.”

These were the last words spoken by George Floyd — words that had also been spoken by many who came before him: Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Michael Brown … and the list goes on.

“I didn’t do anything, officer.”

“I just want to make it home to my family.”

It is disheartening to know that the people responsible for these deaths often did not face punishment for their actions. Those who sympathize with the dead would advocate for change on social media for a few days. Then, everyone would go back to the regularly scheduled program.

The coverage of George Floyd’s murder, however, sparked something different. There is nothing regularly scheduled about life during a health pandemic, and with this extra time on their hands, people have decided to use their voices to fight a racial pandemic that has been ignored for far too long.

People took to social media and other media to raise awareness of recent killings that received much less coverage than George Floyd’s. Breonna Taylor was shot in her home, sleeping with her boyfriend, when police entered without knocking, searching for a suspect who was already in custody.

She was shot eight times in her own home.

Ahmaud Arbery was on a run in a country town in Georgia when he was killed by a father-son duo. Though these were not police officers like the previous cases, these men seemed to believe a Black man’s life is less significant than that of someone white, and they would be able to get away with leaving his bulleted and bloody body in the street.

He was shot three times in broad daylight.

Maybe it was the lack of anything else “sexy” to broadcast on television or debate over the radio, but this news finally penetrated the American consciousness. Enough was enough.

Multiple conversations among colleagues and friends about the outrage people felt as a result of these murders ended with one thought: That they would be just another case of a hashtag circulating on social media. What happened instead is the COVID-19 pandemic seemed to pause. Yes, the coronavirus is still around. No, there is not a vaccine or a cure. But … people are tired.

This is where the intersection of two pandemics began. People have been quarantining in their houses for months, baking, exercising and finding other ways to stay entertained and help slow the spread of the coronavirus. But when systemic racism slaps someone in the face who’s been sitting at home for months, it is impossible to ignore. The traumatic experience of seeing an unsolicited video pop up on a social media feed or television screen of a man pleading for his life while a police officer keeps a knee on his neck while fellow officers stand watching — that demands action.

While there is a rational fear of being in a large crowd because of how quickly coronavirus can spread, the ongoing pandemic affecting Black lives in America has gone on for too long. That alone, for many, is worth braving the outside world to fight for change.

The irony of it all is that it took a health pandemic that disproportionately affected Black communities across the country — revealing systemic injustices in health care, income, and other areas — to show how these factors manifest themselves outwardly in interactions like police brutality. Finally, the media listened.

This is not enough.

Outside of peaceful protests, there was also looting in multiple cities. This garnered even more attention from the media. Photographs of the broken windows and vandalism were splashed across every front page and broadcast channel.

While the looting has stopped for the most part, peaceful protests continue. Many news outlets have reverted back to focusing mostly on COVID-19, as there is nothing captivating about peaceful protesting. In many cities, however, people continue to march for Black lives and demand justice for the lives that have been lost.

The movement doesn’t end when the news cycle does. Living among two pandemics has shown us that too often, media outlets move on when a story is no longer “sexy” or violent. As a result, attention spans are short, and memory is even shorter. This is why media outlets must shift from a news cycle that focuses on the past 24 hours and then moves along to the next story to instead dive deep into stories that will make a difference in the weeks, months and years down the line.

There is room for more than one hot topic at a time. The coronavirus will likely be covered until there is a vaccine to prevent it, and well beyond. Systemic injustices and social change deserve that same dedicated coverage until lasting change happens.

Brandi Griffin is a recent graduate of Northeastern University, where she obtained a Master’s of journalism. Prior to attending Northeastern, Brandi received a Bachelor’s degree in Communication and Art History from Wake Forest University. She loves telling stories of social and racial justice. During her free time, Brandi can be found trying a new recipe, visiting an art museum, or reading a new book. 

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  • I am surprised a a journalist-friendly website like Poynter would use the term “The media”.
    As an organization that is constantly preaching accuracy, the broad use of this term paints every journalist as “the media”. Don’t you really mean national networks? Or maybe something else? Name “the media” specifically. Please refrain from using this term as it gives all journalists a bad name and I doubt that was your intent. Local journalists constantly get lumped in to this category by news outlets that use this lazy form of writing. Do better.