Infection Count vs. Jobless Data: An Imbalanced TV Picture

A Washington Post opinion piece this week posed an interesting question: What if television news channels like CNN displayed unemployment numbers throughout the day the way they do infection and death counts, thus raising awareness of the enormous economic cost the coronavirus is wreaking on the nation? Greater public awareness of job loss could pressure lawmakers to accelerate relief programs, much as wall-to-wall coverage of infection counts has pushed government leaders to enact more mobility restrictions on citizens. This raises the question of just how much more coverage infection counts are getting compared with unemployment numbers.

Specifically, how often are the words “unemployment,” “unemployed” or “jobless” displayed on CNN each day? In contrast, how often does “Johns Hopkins” (CNN’s primary source of infection and death counts) appear on screen?

To explore this question, Google’s Video AI was used to “watch” CNN 24/7 since Jan. 25 and compile all of the text visible on screen each second. The source of all the broadcasts was the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive and they were analyzed by the GDELT Project in a special non-consumptive digital library system.

The timeline below shows the total seconds of airtime from Jan. 25 through the end of April 8 in which either of the two topics appeared in the on-screen text each day. (Click on the chart to enlarge it.)

Unemployment began appearing around March 18, with two bursts on March 26 and April 2 (coinciding with the release of weekly jobless figures), but otherwise has received little on-screen visibility.

In contrast, on March 20, CNN displayed infection and death counts from Johns Hopkins University for more than five hours (the cumulative total) throughout the day and starting the following day has aired them around eight to nine hours each day.

In total, over the past two months, unemployment numbers have appeared on screen on CNN for just 6.3 hours total, compared with 160.3 hours of infection and death counts.

Over the last three weeks, a third of CNN’s total airtime each day has aired the public health impact of the virus, compared to just a few brief mentions of its economic devastation. Would greater visibility of the latter pressure lawmakers to extend greater relief to the nation’s suddenly jobless? We may never know the answer as CNN has apparently decided, at this point, that the health impacts are far more important.

RealClear Media Fellow Kalev Leetaru is a senior fellow at the George Washington University Center for Cyber & Homeland Security. His past roles include fellow in residence at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Government.

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