Media: does one crisis overshadow the other? – Eurispes – CoRiS Sapienza TV News Observatory Report
Tg Eurispes Observatory – CoRiS Sapienza
Does one crisis overshadow the other?
The permanent emergency of TV News
between Covid-19 and the Russian-Ukrainian conflict
The Tg Eurispes-CoRiS Sapienza Observatory Report analyses the last months of the Covid-19 information monopoly, and the first months of the following crisis, the one concerning the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. The period observed is therefore from September 2021 to May 2022.
With the Russian invasion, we observe, from 24 February, the return of an all-encompassing narrative of prime-time information, similar to that which had characterised the first months of 2020 in reference to Covid-19. The analysis of the Italian mainstream news coverage in February and March 2022, therefore, gives us the opportunity to observe an unprecedented change, from one state of emergency to another. The coverage devoted to updates on the spread of the contagion and the debate on measures for its containment – which in the last few months of 2021 had occupied an average of 32.5% of the repertoire of the headlines of the seven national news broadcasts examined, and which in January increased in the wake of the green pass controversy, coming to cover 44.5% of the repertoire – is finally confined to a ‘crisis-driven out’ logic. Thus, the importance of Covid-related narrative lines decreased in February, dropping to 29.5% of the repertoire of titles, and then dissipated in March, stopping at 13.6%: i.e. less than 1 title in 8.
At the same time, the focus on the Russian-Ukrainian crisis monopolises the news landscape almost as intensely as it did two years ago with the explosion of the Covid theme: if the coverage devoted to the escalation of the crisis and the European and American reactions covers 30.5% of the repertoire of titles in February, the articulated reporting on the war, from the chronicles on the ground to the possible consequences on the international chessboard, manages to cover 70.7% of the repertoire.
A comparison between March 2020 and March 2022 reveals a substantial equivalence in terms of space, openings and tone. Nevertheless, marked differences emerge between the conflict-absorbed news landscape and the Covid-related one, particularly in terms of ratings: the horror of the war in Ukraine does not retain the same audiences as in 2020 when they were forced to stay home due to the lockdown and curfew. Just after three weeks, the audience share gained by prime time at the beginning of the conflict begins to fade away.
If in March 2020 the curfew had pushed an average of 24.4 million people to watch TV, the conflict’s crucial phases gathered just 17.8 million: a difference of almost 7 million. A comparison with the March 2020 editions also reveals another difference: in the first month of the pandemic, the focus had been on the narrative, i.e. on the search for guidelines to help find one’s way through the dramatic and insidious initial phase of the spread of the contagion. In the case of the war in Ukraine, on the other hand, the news broadcasts repeatedly reproposed, almost without filters, the footage and direct testimonies, with the sounds of the explosions, the cries of the displaced, often using them as the opening element of editions and reports, almost as if they wanted to catapult the public into the middle of the scene.
The undeniable power of these witness reports led some newspapers to change the structure of their editions, presenting themselves as daily ‘special editions’ dedicated to the conflict. This is the case of Tg4, which, from the beginning of the invasion, has always dedicated a single title to the war throughout March, breaking down day by day the evolution of the clashes and leaving, at the end of the headlines, two or three minutes of collage with scenes from the footage collected during the day. The RAI flagship also did the same, which during the first three weeks of the invasion substituted a traditional headline with the proposal of unedited images, accompanied by sparse descriptions in the overlay. Single headline almost every day also for Tg La7, which, however, did not at all give up the mediation of the word. As had also happened during the first months of Covid-19, the entire La7 channel adapted its programming to follow the unfolding of the conflict, making Mentana’s news a summary of the events already discussed live throughout the day.
PRIME TIME RATINGS. THE NORMALISATION OF THE AUDIENCE BEFORE THE INVASION
In terms of audience, the six months preceding the invasion of Ukraine showed a substantial realignment with the audience figures characterising the pre-Covid period. A comparison between the months of November and December of the last 3 years (2019, 2020 and 2021) shows that the audience levels in the autumn of 2020 (+4.4 million average viewers between the months of November and December compared to 2019) were not the same during the same period in 2021.
Turning to the changes in the audience for the individual titles, if the last two months of 2021 show a loss of audience for all editions, with an average reduction in the audience of 3.6 million compared to November and December 2020, the comparison with 2019 shows a consolidation of the audience for some titles. In absolute terms, Tg3 recorded the largest increase, with an average of +300,000 viewers compared to the 2019 editions (+13%). This was followed by Tg5 (+200 thousand average viewers in the two-month period) and Tg1 (+150 thousand).
The biggest decrease was instead recorded by Studio Aperto, which on average lost about 320,000 viewers, i.e. 42% of its total audience in the two-month period under review. There was also a significant drop for Tg2, which compared with November-December 2019 saw a 14% reduction in its audience, around 180,000 viewers. These trends are also broadly reflected in the comparison with the audience in the first week of February. If almost all the newspapers record a drop in audience, it is Studio Aperto and Tg2 that lose the most compared to 2020 (-27% and -28%), while Tg3 is the only newspaper that continues to gain in ratings and audience (+200,000 viewers) compared to the beginning of the pandemic period.
Coming to the actual invasion, the war breaks out on the screens from the early morning of 24 February, monopolising all the editions for long days, which have substantially resolved themselves in the reporting of the conflict. However, framing it in audience terms, such participation only led to a moderate increase in the evening audience, with an average growth of about 1.2 million viewers between the first week of February and of March. This peak of attention did not last long and, as the conflict continued, the audience dropped, until it realigned itself already during the third week with the typical values of the period. Having vanished the initial tension produced by the first days of the invasion, the prime time audience began to turn away from the screens as early as mid-March.
THE THEMES IN THE PRIME TIME HEADLINES. THE ANALYSIS OF THE STORYLINES
The six months of news preceding the Russian invasion of Ukraine (September 2021-February 2022) can be divided into two distinct periods. The last months of 2021 (September-December) constituted a substantial return of ‘traditional’ information, with the definitive abandonment of the ’emergency’ features of the narrative, albeit dominant, that had marked the reporting of the pandemic. And the lack of interest in the tensions between Russia and Ukraine continued until the last week of January when the ‘winds of war’ went from being the subject of sporadic mentions to occupying a few in-depth features in the middle of the edition. Ukraine, however, remained out of the open until mid-February.
First phase: the TV News sanitisation
The data for the period between September and December 2021 represents the definitive settlement of the agendas of prime-time news: the topic of the Covid-19 emergency now coexists with the ‘narrative worlds’ of news and politics.
During these four months, neither the alarms of the Ukrainian authorities nor Putin’s claims appear in the headlines. The only exceptions are a few references on Tg La7, which on 2 December was already echoing Russian Minister Lavrov’s statements on the ‘nightmare scenario’ that could be envisaged for Europe.
The above is more evident if one follows the evolution, month by month, of these dimensions (news, politics, and health), and the relevance of the clusters generated by them with respect to the overall news coverage.
In September, the health dimension still accounts for an important slice of the entire repertoire of headlines in prime-time news, specifically 19.8%, depending on topics such as the “third_dose” of the vaccine, the issue of “fragile” workers and the policies needed for a safe restart of the “school”. However, although intertwined with it, the dimensions of politics and policy add up to 31.1% of the repertoire, fairly evenly divided between a debate largely independent of the health emergency, focused on the one hand on the power relations between parties (“PD”, “Lega”) and leaders (“Salvini”, “Meloni”), on the other on the labour market (“public”, “worker”, “union”) and the cost of living (“bills”, “light”). Two ‘islands’ complete the autumn news picture: on the one hand, the cluster dedicated to foreign policy (24.2% of the headline repertoire), and specifically the Afghan situation (“Taliban”, “Kabul”, “Panshir”). On the other, the non-political news, which focuses on the one hand on the long-term consequences of the Mottarone tragedy (“Eitan”, “grandfather”, “Israel”), and on the other, on the new chapter of the eternal mafia issue, in which a leading role is played by the Casamonica trial (“prison”, “hearing”, “mafia”).
In October, the health dimension returned to occupy an important slice of the headlines (38.7%). This is due to a specific articulation of the debate. The prevalent dimension (23.5%), which reflects the more traditional debate on the role of the ‘vaccine’ in the containment of ‘contagion’, is flanked by a secondary cluster (15.2%) devoted to the ‘green_pass’ issue and the consequences of its application on public order.
Likewise, the political and policy dimension undergoes a peculiar articulation. Therefore, here is a cluster (15.6% of the repertoire) mainly dedicated to issues related to the cost of living (“tax”, “pension”, “tax”), closely intertwined with another (15%) dedicated to political debate (“centre-right”, “centre-left”), with direct reference to municipal elections (“runoff”, “candidate”). Above them, ideally linking them with the health clusters, the already mentioned dimension of public order (16.6%), which concerns the news about the assault on the ‘CGIL’, the answers of Minister ‘Lamorgese’, the role of extreme right-wing exponents involved such as Giuliano ‘Castellino’.
In November 2021, a debate map is defined in three ‘islands’ and four clusters. The health dimension retains considerable weight (33.4%). Practically equivalent (33.8%) is the political dimension. “Geographically” separate from the clusters just described is the narrative line of the chronicle, which occupies an important share of the overall headlines (32.9%) with one of the most traditional Italian news items: crime news which dramatically increases on the occasion of the day against violence against women.
In December 2021, no less than 6 clusters are identified: the health dimension is growing (38.2%) and is again divided into two practically equivalent clusters, flanking the debate on ‘hospitalisations’, ‘therapies’ and ‘contagions’ with the specific ‘health policy’ one, relating to the application of the ‘green_pass’, the regulation on the use of ‘masks’, but also the ‘omicron_variant’.
The political dimension turns out to be minor (12.9%), but important as a ‘junction’ of the different narrative strands of information. It, in fact, intertwines not only with the aforementioned health clusters but also with the other 3 clusters that complete the ‘geography’ of information at the end of the year. The chronicle (16.3%), includes in a single cluster very different issues, from the ‘trip’ of the ‘Pope’ to Cyprus and Greece to the workplace tragedy caused by the collapse of a ‘crane’ in ‘Turin’. Finally, a cluster concerning the release of ‘Zaki’ (16.8%).
Second phase: one crisis overshadow the other
The data relating to the first three months of the year 2022 inevitably mark the reversal of the information focus, which gets rid of the persistent centrality of Covid-related topics only to give way to a new trigger event, the Ukrainian crisis. This transformation was not the result of a gradual transition, but can be traced back to a specific date: 12 February, when – with the crisis in relations between Russia and the United States – the tensions between Moscow and Kyiv entered the prime-time agendas in their own right.
The month of January in fact constitutes the end of the long wave of Covid-centred news, attention shifts to topics unrelated to the pandemic: in particular with the race for the Quirinal. This purely political dimension (29.4%) is flanked by the narrative line of news headlines (26.1%).
In February, the healthcare component of television news maintained its influence on a considerable percentage of the headlines’ repertoire (29.5%), while 30.5% of the repertoire began to be devoted to the issues that the Ukraine crisis brings with it: the dimension of the debate that we can define as geopolitical (and which reviews the threats of ‘Russia’ and the possible countermeasures, on the part of ‘Europe’, for a 20.4% of the repertoire) is combined with that from the field (which leads viewers to develop a certain familiarity with the ‘Donbass’ region and with the name of the Ukrainian premier ‘Zelensky’, for a 10.1% of the repertoire). Another important, communicative change follows: Ukraine, which in January appeared as the object of contention between the superpowers, becomes in the course of February an autonomous communicative subject, and above all one with a strong Europeanist vocation.
None of the narratives relating to the pandemic and the war, taken individually, manage however to overtake that dedicated to politics (23.8%), driven by the re-election of ‘Mattarella’ to the Quirinal but also by the admissibility of the four ‘Referendums’ on ‘justice’ promoted by the League and Radicals. Finally, a lot of attention (16.2%) is devoted to policy issues, and in particular to the rising concerns about the ‘bill-carry’, still linked only to the dimension of rising commodity prices and not to the consequences of the Russian-Ukrainian crisis.
From February 24 to March 31, the narration of the war accounted for 98% of the openings, occupying a total of more than two-thirds of the headlines: only 6 times during March did the prime time news not open on the situation in Ukraine. With 70.7% of the headline repertoire focusing on the new trigger event, it is possible to identify four different narrative lines within this new information monopolisation, which can be read in terms of two macro-strands. The first concerns the geopolitical dimension, which the Italian information distinguishes in a first line more linked to the role of Biden’s US and to the scenarios involving the use of “chemical” weapons (18%,) and in a second line that rather frames the “negotiation” between “Zelensky” and “Putin” within the framework of European diplomatic initiatives (16.6%). The second macro-strand concerning the new information emergency concerns the more properly military dimension of the crisis, and in turn bifurcates into a narrative line from the field (reporting from “Mariupol” rather than from “Kharkiv”, 20.1%) and a narrative line focused on the humanitarian dimension of the crisis (and in particular on the flight of “women” and “children” from the theatres of war, 16%).
Within this changed framework, coverage relating to the health dimension does not disappear, but retains a share of weight at 13.6% of the repertoire, contained in absolute terms but important in an economy of attention that only 29.3% deals with issues unrelated to the Ukrainian crisis.
In the month of April, the Russian-Ukrainian crisis accounted for 72.2% of the headlines in the prime time news and generated no less than 5 different clusters. The most consistent (17.8%) concerns the broadcasting of news on the massacre of civilians carried out in ‘Bucha’ and the condemnation expressed by the major international authorities. This is followed (15.6%) by the narrative line dedicated to diplomatic action, centred on the theme of “sanctions” and the tug-of-war over the control of “gas” and “coal”, the role of the “UN” and the “European_Union”. Closely intertwined is the cluster (13%) on overseas reactions, the role of President ‘Biden’, speculation on the ‘nuclear’ option and – significantly – the possibility of ‘Finland’ and ‘Sweden’ joining NATO. Also important (25.6% of the repertoire) is the role of war news, which generates two distinct but once again intertwined clusters, one of which (13.2%) is entirely dedicated to the fate of the ‘Azov’ battalion barricaded in the ‘steelworks’ of ‘Mariupol’.
The month of May marks a divide in this second TV news crisis, showing a sudden drop in attention to the conflict (45.1%). The war narrative is made up of only two clusters, one dedicated to the negotiations (21.9%) and the clash between the two absolute actors in the Russian-Ukrainian crisis, ‘Putin’ and ‘Zelensky’; the other one pursuing what we could call ‘the Mariupol saga'(23.2%). In contrast, refugees and reception are disappearing from TV news.