Three Ways to Use Data to Drive Better COVID-19 Coverage

How analytics can enhance news judgment in a crisis

What does your local audience need to know about COVID-19, and when does it need to know it? Questions of editorial priority are always important. Right now, lives likely depend on making those decisions well. Editorial judgment is crucial. But we should also use data: data on what people search; what people click; and, what people say they want.

Here are three powerful tools to help make data-driven decisions about how to allocate finite newsroom reporting resources to be sure you’re providing the information your community needs most.

1. Google Trends: What We Ask Google

What are the questions people in your community are asking right now that you could answer? There’s no need to guess. Google Trends tracks what people are ‘asking Google,’ and the data is “ultra granular and ultra local,” notes Simon Rogers, Data Editor for Google News Lab. Rogers sees Google Trends as a tool to complement news judgment, enabling editors to combine “the local knowledge you’re going to have with the Trends data, to see how your area is similar, and different from others.”

Google Trends can be used to explore down to the metro area (which matches TV DMA’s) to answer questions like: Are searches for the new coronavirus going up, down or steady? What are the topics people are searching for most? What are the newest trending searches? For example, over the weekend, searches spiked for people looking for how to make a cotton facemask.

Trends can also help news managers anticipate the needs of their audience. Rogers notes that the searches that were trending three weeks ago in Italy became trending searches recently for New York. Other cities with a lag in cases could look to New York for similar insight into what their local audiences will soon want to know.

Some news outlets have already used this data to find and tell locally relevant stories. Rogers cited the Seattle Times using Trends for a story on mortgage demand; KHOU-TV for a story on the rise in searches for how to cut your own hair; and Cleveland.com for a report on the increased interest in stockpiling.

Newsrooms can use the “Explore” feature of Google Trends to find localized insights. In addition, Google has now launched a dedicated Coronavirus Trends page which gives a high-level view of trending topics globally, and any newsroom can also sign up to receive a new, daily COVID-19 Trends Report email for automated insights.

2. Chartbeat: What We Click

Another way to align news coverage with audience demand is to analyze what people click, and share. Last week, Chartbeat released a comprehensive report compiling COVID-19 coverage insights from its 700+ news partners world-wide. A few takeaways stand out.

First, local audiences remain hungry for news about the new coronavirus. Tools like Chartbeat can help newsrooms assess “topic fatigue” and so far, the data shows continued strong demand for this reporting. In particular, newsrooms are seeing traffic spikes any time their local or state government announces new orders or restrictions.

The second big insight from Chartbeat data is about how audiences are finding content and using platforms. Direct traffic to news websites remains strong, but the biggest growth has been in traffic driven by searches on Google, which has doubled referrals from Facebook. Also, interestingly, engaged time resulting from a Google referral is 33% higher than from a Facebook referral.

In terms of top performing content, live blogs and daily updates were the number one performing content type across Chartbeat’s news partners.

Jill Nichsolson at Chartbeat said their data reinforces the importance of using each platform for what it does best: News websites for the right-now and need-to-know information; optimizing for search the fact-based stories answering common questions; and Facebook for sharing human interest stories and connection.

More: Full thread of Chartbeat findings

3. Research: What We Say We Want

There’s what we search for, and what we click on; and what we say we want. Researchers at the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin conducted a survey of 999 people between March 23-24 to answer that question.

The topics people surveyed said were most important for local news to cover were “local health updates and information about local entities that provide critical services, such as hospitals, grocery stores, and local government.”

Researchers asked respondents to rate a wide range of coverage topics from “not very important” (0) to “very important” (3). The top ten make for a revealing list that any news manager could use to help inform coverage.

Source: UT Austin. View full survey results.

This survey data affirms insights shared with me by local TV stations participating in our Table Stakes news innovation program. Live streams of (often daily) state and local government briefings are drawing large local audiences, eager for the latest information about their communities.

Interestingly, there’s another observation supported by both Google Trends and Chartbeat data, and reports from stations I work with: Our audiences also want a ‘side dish’ of escapism to offset the serious news about the coronavirus. Whether it’s recipe-sharing, help with home schooling, recommendations on books to read or shows to watch, or just funny videos of pets interrupting Zoom meetings, the data shows audiences also need some levity during these difficult times.

News leaders have spent careers developing the ‘nose for news’ that’s helping guide daily decisions on their COVID-19 coverage. But limited resources and stressful remote-work conditions call for working smart, not just working hard. Supplementing news judgment with news data is a great way to validate our best instincts and identify potential gaps in local coverage.

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