Sunday, May 24, 2020
Saturday, March 7, 2020
Information and misinformation about the new Coronavirus has for weeks been easily available to anyone with an Internet connection -- i.e. almost everyone in the United States. So news organizations that don't cover this story until the virus is detected in their community are failing an important test.
People want information because they are justifiably concerned about the Coronavirus. Many people are getting sick, and some are dying. There is not yet a medicine or vaccine to treat the virus. Mobile phones and computers make it easy to find, follow, and share reports about the virus on social media, search engines, and websites.
Local journalists compete directly with the information that people are finding on the internet. Journalists who aren't covering this story are losing this competition and signaling irrelevance to potential audiences. This is not a good strategy when local journalism is struggling to survive.
Searches coincide with developments in the news
I live in Athens, Ohio, a state that has not yet reported any infections. But Google's data on the volume of Coronavirus searches shows interest in Ohio coincides with major news about the virus.
The chart compares Ohio searches on the topic of Coronavirus with Ohio searches on the topic of the flu from December to March. Each topic includes many different search terms. Interest is measured on a scale from zero to 100, where 100 represents a peak in searches.1
The chart begins Dec. 31, 2019, when China first reported the new virus to the world, according to a timeline in the New York Times. Searches for informaiton on the flu have not changed much in response to virus news, but the opposite is true for Coronavirus.
The first Coronavirus case in the United States was reported on Jan. 21, 2020, the day the first spike in Ohio searches begins. The Trump administration announced restrictions on travel from China on Jan. 31, 2020, which was followed by the rapid decline in searches that ended the first spike.
The second spike in Coronavirus searches began Feb. 23, 2020, the day that authorities in Italy responded to a major outbreak by shutting down some Italian towns. The next day the Trump administration asked Congress for $1.25 billion to combat the virus in the United States. Searches in Ohio have been spiking ever since.
The trends in Ohio show journalists throughout the state should have been covering the story no later than Jan. 21.
I live in Athens, home to Ohio University which has extensive international connections and a medical school. So I've been surprised by the lack of coverage in two local newspapers that claim to serve the community. The first Coronavirus story that I read in either paper was just published in The Athens News three days ago, March 4, 2020.I might have missed some earlier stories, but that's because there were few or none.
Ohio is not uniquely interested in Coronavirus. Google data shows interest across the United States coinciding with the same major developments in the Coronavirus story.
Journalists can develop unique local stories
Coronavirus is a complicated story involving science, public health, politics, and local jobs and businesses. So many local journalists will probably have to learn a lot of new information at the same time they are covering the story.
Repeating information that is already available on the internet will not make local stories competitive. Local journalists must provide new and valuable information to attract and hold audience attention.
Fortunately, the internet also gives local journalists direct access to the global conversation among experts trying to contain the virus. This makes it possible to quickly find accurate information that can be used to develop differentiated local stories.
For example, former FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb has warned that local health departments and hospitals might be rapidly overwhelmed if the virus becomes epidemic. His concerns are discussed on his Twitter feed (@ScottGottliebMD), which also references his op-eds in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere.
Local journalists who publish stories on the limited resources available to fight an epidemic are likely to attract an audience that will stay with them for additional coverage.
Journalists risk losing audiences if they don't cover this story
Local news organizations have limited staff. Many local newspapers are struggling financially. But journalists who don't re-order priorities to provide continuing coverage of the Coronavirus risk making those problems worse.
When someone is concerned or frightened they keep looking until they find information that answers their concern. Someone who cannot get local Coronavirus information from their community newspaper or television station will go elsewhere to find what they need. They might never return.
The Coronavirus is a major test of credibility for local journalists. But the virus is also an opportunity for journalists to show audiences why their work matters. I hope journalists pass this test.
1 According to Google, trends data is based on representative samples of all searches on a topic. The samples are used to create an index measuring the proportion of searches on a topic. Increases/decreases mean a larger/smaller proportion of searches in Ohio or the United States were about Coronavirus or the flu. This shows increases/decreases in interest about a topic. Charts do not show the actual number of searches.
Thursday, December 13, 2007
by Itai Himmelboim1
Here’s some old news: one of the greatest promises of the Internet is the ability for anyone with a PC and Internet connection to join forums on any topic imaginable and contribute, consume and exchange information and opinions. Information is available via a wide range of old sources (news websites) and new sources (blogs, forums, personal websites and news aggregators such as Google News).
Robert Nye said once that a richness of information leads to a poverty of attention. In a study I conducted with Marc Smith and Eric Gleave from Microsoft Research, the Netscan dataset was used to follow patterns of replies – indicators of attention – in 20 political newsgroups between July and December 2006.
It wasn’t a surprise to find that in all newsgroups, relatively few participants attracted a relatively large portion of the discussion to threads they started. After all, literature illustrates that large networks – be they of people, websites or even genes – tend to show a power-law distribution in which few participants receive a large and disproportional number of links – in our case, replies – from other participants. With that in mind, we began to explore the role that this small number of highly connected participants play in their groups.
We identified these highly replied participants using a range of statistical measures including: success in starting new threads, the percentage of all messages in a group that appeared in threads they started, as well as the percentage of individuals in the group that participated in these threads. We found only a handful of such highly connected participants in each group, making them less than one percent of the population in their newsgroups. Many of these participants attracted more than one-half of the discussion to threads they started. We decided to name them Discussion Catalysts, or DCs.
Deciding what to talk about
Discussion catalysts may not tell fellow group members what to say, but according to their attention grabbing records, they do tell groups what to talk about. Our next step was to determine what information they brought to the table.
Content analysis of messages that discussion catalysts used to start threads revealed an interesting phenomenon. If you thought, like I did, that political discussions in newsgroups start with an individual’s opinion, you may be surprised to find that this study shows otherwise. DCs play the role of content importers. They go outside their groups to the World Wide Web – news sites, blogs and other websites – search for interesting articles, and bring them to groups to discuss.
Another interesting finding was that although DCs import content from a range of sources, most of the articles came from traditional news sites such as the Washington Post and Associated Press. Less than one tenth of the entries came from blogs.
So what does all this tell us? First, although the Internet is free and open by its nature, when we interact freely, we tend to create a structure in which few of us get a lot and most of us get very little. Second, even when we use relatively new platforms for political discussions, the information comes from good (?), old news organizations. Why? Well, I’ll leave that for you to discuss.
1 Itai Himmelboim is a doctoral student at the University of Minnesota's School of Journalism and Mass Communication.