How Local News Is Covering the Pandemic in New York

By NY Interconnect InSites Archives
Cover image for  article: How Local News Is Covering the Pandemic in New York

Given the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, with its overwhelming impact on New York City and its metropolitan area, it is worth exploring how various New York-based media ventures have covered the outbreak. Indeed, publications such as The New York Times and New York gained attention for dropping their paywalls for virus-related coverage, while providing nearly up-to-the-minute updates on the virus' spread, as well as its impact on the city and surrounding areas. Yet, as a conversation with Michael Felicetti, Vice President of New York Interconnect's News Division, suggested, local television news has played no small part in keeping New Yorkers abreast of the goings-on in the time since the Coronavirus arrived.

For Felicetti, the importance of local television news is hardly unique to particularly acute crises. And, to this point, as he made the valid argument in a MediaVillage commentary piece three months before the virus' arrival in New York, local news is "a safe haven and an escape from the divisive, never-ending cycle of partisan political coverage on national news networks." The current environment, as Felicetti conveyed to me in a recent conversation, puts this readily on display: "[National news] is much more opinion-based and, in many cases, polarized." Local news, on the other hand, boasts a "trust and credibility," where viewers rely on these stations "to get the information that's going to affect them in their communities, in their backyard." As I have also indicated previously, given widespread concerns about the declining health of many local newspapers, an open question remains if television news might come to fill some of that gap.

Also echoing a point he raised in the 2019 MediaVillage piece, Felicetti — in our conversation — put forward a favorite perspective of his when it comes to local television news, describing it as a "utility": "You turn on the lights in the morning. You turn on the water to take a shower, and you turn on your television to check the local news to see all of the most pertinent information." Felicetti mentions that, in normal times, this pertinent information is, for instance, how to dress one's children for school that morning; however, in the midst of the pandemic, much of the content has shifted towards providing essential information about the crisis. And this is very much the case at News 12 and NY1, the two 24-hour news stations with which Felicetti works.

In Felicetti's view, the two stations' content choices during the pandemic have been informative, while also striking a desirable balance between providing a comprehensive portrayal of the state of the pandemic and sharing positive moments, as well. News 12, which largely serves the New York suburbs (as opposed to NY1's focus on the five boroughs), has introduced a segment entitled Coping in the Crisis. Following in the vein of other media outlets such as NPR and CNN, which have made answering viewer-submitted questions a mainstay of their Coronavirus coverage, Coping in the Crisis enables viewers to call-in to pose questions to a doctor or relevant expert. As Felicetti indicated, "At the beginning of the crisis when people didn't know what was going on, it was very heavy medically." Since then, however, the show has expanded the topics of its question-and-answer sessions, with a greater focus on matters such as the financial impact of the pandemic — or how public transportation will be affected. (All the while, NY1 has pioneered a similar format with a show entitled One New York with Pat Kiernan, with users submitting questions via social media, rather than by telephone.)

Felicetti emphasizes that both News 12 and NY1 have been very conscious of seeking to avoid a disproportionate focus on "doom and gloom," particularly given the very real possibility of viewers becoming fatigued by the context influx of less than stellar developments, especially considering the latest coverage of the demonstrations. To this point, News 12, for instance, featured a May 12th heartwarming story of a 7-year-old girl from the town of Laurel Hollow, New York donating the contents of her piggy bank to a local hospital. Similarly, both stations have broadcast prominently-displayed "Thank You" messages for healthcare workers, and there has also been coverage of "Mindful Moments," intended to help viewers suffering from stress to remain calm. Perhaps most notably, NY1's Pat Kiernan officiated a wedding on-air for two New Yorkers whose wedding plans were disrupted by the virus.

Like many other television news outlets, both News 12 and NY1 have been experiencing a surge in ratings during the crisis, with Monday through Friday's 9am-5pm coverage up 91% at News 12 and that same time slot surging as much as 209% at NY1. Interestingly, Felicetti describes how the virus, which has confined many people to working from home, has led to changing viewing habits, with a greater and greater share of viewers tuning in for daytime coverage: "Because people are quarantined and in their homes and not working, we're seeing the viewing patterns shift, where daytime viewing is exploding between 9am and 4pm." When asked if these local news stations were experiencing the paradox of sorts seen at some national news outlets, where ratings were increasing but approval ratings were not, Felicetti suggested that local news' relative lack of dabbling in partisan politics may have served to prevent this dynamic from emerging.

Of course, there is an element of frustration in that ratings are higher than ever, but the demand for advertising is hardly keeping pace, as advertisers, particularly in industries such as hospitality and travel, are paring back spending. This is taking place across the media space and has been reflected in online media's significant layoffs, such as took place recently at Vice and The Atlantic. However, Felicetti remains optimistic that this setback will be temporary, and he suggests this by pointing to a different disaster that greatly affected the New York area: 2012's Hurricane Sandy. Although, as has been widely reported, the Hurricane and its effects resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars of lost advertising, this downturn was hardly permanent. For News 12 and NY 1, the hope, likewise, remains that today's robust coverage of the pandemic will be rewarded by new viewers sticking with the channels once the Coronavirus is behind us, as well as old advertisers making a complete return.

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