Dissecting the coverage of February 2023’s three big headlines underscores a severe disconnect between what people want to know and what newsrooms choose to discuss. And also the failing yet relentless attempts of mainstream American news to distract people.
February 2023 was a month-long “field day” for journalists and media houses in the USA. Within six days, three sensational headlines broke: the Chinese spy balloon over US airspace, the Ohio train derailment, and the Nord Stream exposé by Seymour Hersh.
On February 2, 2023, a Chinese-operated high-altitude balloon was observed in North American airspace sparking considerable social media commotion. Under direct orders from their Supreme Commander, President Joe Biden, the U.S. Air Force blew it up, and debris was collected and sent for analysis.
On February 3, 2023, a train derailment involving hazardous materials occurred in East Palestine, Ohio. Some railcars burned for over two days, prompting a controlled burn and the release of harmful substances into the air. Evacuations were carried out, and multiple agencies in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia initiated emergency responses.
And on February 8, 2023, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh published an explosive investigation saying the United States and Norway had jointly bombed the Nord Stream pipelines between Russia and Germany.
In terms of newsworthiness, all three deserved ample coverage and discussion.
For instance, the spy balloon incident deserves much coverage due to the national security implications and the question about American airspaces’ safety and integrity.
The Ohio train derailment yet again brought into the focus the rail safety standards—or lack thereof—that have been an issue of concern for many years. And that’s without even accounting for the ecological and social disaster the explosion of chemicals led to in the area.
The article by Seymour Hersh on America’s conspiracy in sabotaging the Nord Stream pipeline has an immense political bearing on reporting and propaganda around the Russia-Ukriane war. The bombing had, after all, been blamed on the Russians, and this exposé questioned the credibility of both US-EU politicians and news outlets.
However, the coverage of these three stories was far from equal.
Our analysis shows the spy balloon incident got maximum coverage, while the Ohio derailment was way down in numbers compared to the coverage of the spy balloon. And the Nord Stream story was hardly covered in the mainstream media.
For this analysis, we chose ABC News, Bloomberg, Business Insider, BuzzFeed, CBS News, CNN, Forbes, Fox News, Huffington Post, NBC, NY Times, NY Post, NPR, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.
Headline delayed, headline denied
The Ohio train derailment happened on February 3, 2023. The story started getting wider attention in the mainstream media ten days after the incident. In the case of the spy balloon incident, the mainstream media started picking the news right from the word go, and the coverage of Seymour Hersh’s allegations was so little it smacked of overt bias by omission.
It is to be noted that studies have shown that delays in news coverage of important stories are a significant source of bias in journalism. When news organizations fail to cover noteworthy events promptly or thoroughly, it can affect how the public perceives the issue and the individuals involved.
A study published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 2016 analyzed the effects of media bias on social media during the 2014 Hong Kong protests. The study found that media outlets more aligned with the government tended to delay coverage of the demonstrations or provide limited coverage. In contrast, outlets that were more aligned with the protesters tended to provide more frequent and in-depth coverage. The researchers concluded that biased news coverage could lead to palpable polarization and a lack of understanding among distinct groups in society.
And as the timeline shows, the reporting by the US media on the three stories was very disproportionate in terms of when they got reported.
The spy balloon incident had more than 1000 stories during the period of analysis by the mainstream American media agencies in focus, compared to around 600 stories done on the Ohio explosion and then a very negligible number of stories done on the Nord Stream bombing allegations.
A closer look at the data, including the number of all stories published by the media houses, the frequency of the stories by date, the mean length of the stories, and the tweet frequency by users from the USA, along with the actual dates of the three incidents throw up some interesting patterns and insights.
While the data clearly shows the inadequate coverage of the Nord Stream sabotage, it is essential to note that even though the spy balloon incident was first reported on February 3, it had a news coverage peak on February 4. What is interesting here is that after Seymour Hersh’s Nord Stream exposé surfaced on February 8, the stories on the spy balloon started rocketing again in terms of frequency and reached another peak on February 16.
Considering it was a good thirteen days after the first report of the spy balloon, this raises questions about why the media agencies needed to revisit the latter story so emphatically.
Another critical aspect of the lopsided nature of the news coverage can be seen when we juxtapose the Twitter activity of the general American population and the inversely proportional coverage of the incident. For instance, we could capture 380,000 unique tweets on the spy balloon incident between February 2 to February 21, and the first six days amount to 64% of all the tweets. So naturally, the next fourteen days only amounted to 36% of the remaining tweet activity.
This tweet frequency corresponds to the prevalent signs of the spy balloon incident, which had fizzled out after the first ten days of February. But the number of stories by the American media had a second peak on February 16, right after the release of Hersh’s blog on the Nord Stream bombing had started spreading through non-American and independent channels.
Regarding the media coverage of the Ohio train derailment and the explosion that followed, we see similar intriguing patterns.
Despite the incident occurring on February 3, the story only gets picked up by news outlets after a good ten days and has its first peak on February 17. And then a second peak on February 23. Interestingly, out of the 16,000+ unique tweets we captured between February 1 and February 28, close to 70% were tweeted before the first peak in the news outlets.
Social media instantly picked up the gravity of this incident from day one. In contrast, despite the large-scale damages, mainstream American media was reluctant and late to report the train accident and the chemical leak.
In both the Ohio train incident and the spy balloon incident, we can see the disproportionate coverage by the mainstream news media. While narratives can be set regarding foreign policy and things happening outside of one’s country, the critical fact is that all three news items should’ve concerned Americans and their domestic news. And for reasons best known to the newsrooms, they did not agree.
This lag between social sentiment and news cycles is a clear marker of the chasm between what news consumers want to know about and what mainstream media chooses to talk about. However, that is not to say mainstream media doesn’t have any impact on social media.
When measured in terms of the total tweet activity on either of the topics, it is clear that the tweet numbers correspond to the mainstream media coverage of the issues. The spy balloon incident had the maximum number of tweets, followed by the Ohio incident, and Nord Stream got the least number of American tweets.
The total number of stories about Hersh’s exposé in American news was only in double digits, making it challenging to analyze peaks. But choosing to refocus on the spy balloon and the Ohio train derailments right after the release of Hersh’s story clearly shows American newsrooms trying to distract people from the Nord Stream story.
Yet another metric that we analyzed was the mean article length per news item across the American media. A study published in Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly in 2010 analyzed news stories published in three national newspapers in the United States. They found a positive correlation between the length of an article and the perceived importance of the news event being reported.
And another study published in the Journal of Media Psychology in 2013 analyzed news articles and found that longer pieces tended to be more informative and provide a more detailed analysis of the event.
A more recent study was published in the Journal of Applied Journalism & Media Studies in 2021, which analyzed news coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement in the US and found that longer articles tended to provide more in-depth analysis and context.
Using length as a yardstick and comparing the mean article lengths for all three topics, we found that just like other metrics, here too, the spy balloon was given the most importance: 1316 words per story. The Ohio incident was third with 1240 and Nord Stream was second with 1260 words per story but with a negligible number of stories.
While we have already established that the spy balloon story had maximum coverage, its mean story length is also the longest is a surprising insight, given the story was straightforward and not one demanding the space and effort it was given. Secondly, given its extensive coverage in breaking and short news formats, it’s intriguing how media agencies continued covering it even in lengthy forms.
Key findings of the analysis
Major news stories may see differences in coverage and publishing frequency influenced by several factors, including the nature and severity of the incident, the level of public interest in the issue, and the political and cultural context in which the incident occurs.
Historically, localized incidents like the spy balloon and the Ohio train derailment may be primarily covered by local news outlets focusing on the specific details of what happened and the immediate impact on the affected communities.
In contrast, the allegations of Seymour Hersh on America’s involvement in the Nord Stream pipeline sabotage may be of national or international significance and covered more extensively by national news outlets. The coverage of these allegations may be more focused on the potential geopolitical implications and the broader context of US-Russia relations.
Moreover, the level of public interest and the timing of when they pick it up as a topic of discussion on social media is critical to how the national media covers a story. For instance, out of the three news stories, Seymour Hersh’s exposé of America’s involvement in the Nord Stream bombing may carry a far higher significance to the geopolitical ramifications.
Given the tensions between the USA and Russia and the claims by NATO that Russia bombed the pipeline, the fact that the spy balloon incident carried a higher weightage over the Nord Stream exposé coverage points to deliberate bias through omission.
Similarly, when we use public interest as a yardstick, the Ohio train derailment caused a significantly higher impact and damage when compared to the Spy balloon incident. And despite that, the its peak coverage came much later than the actual date of the incident and the period during which people first started expressing their thoughts on Twitter.
Not only the immediate chemical leak, the Ohio train derailment had also brought to the fore, a long-standing lack of basic safety regulations in the US. The New York Times reported safety experts saying that the derailment might have been avoided if Norfolk Southern had placed sensors closer together.
“The rail crash in East Palestine, Ohio, has highlighted a glaring gap in federal safety regulations that have left the railroad industry to set its standards for using sensors that can warn train crews about impending derailments.”
When we use public interest as a yardstick, we notice that the Ohio train derailment had its peak coverage much later when compared to the actual date of the incident and the period during which the public first started expressing their thoughts on Twitter. On the other hand, the spy balloon incident was covered extensively even after the public stopped tweeting about the same.
What then, was the reason for so much reporting on the spy balloon and such little on Ohio? In the words of Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, “diversionary tactic”.
Shashank contributed to this report.