The German Media is on a Roll; How the Coronavirus has Made the Media more ‘Ply-able’

by Jason Deegan and Tom Broekel

Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash

There is no doubt that in recent weeks, things have changed considerably. The fallout from the coronavirus outbreak has led to massive changes in people’s daily lives, and the media is certainly facing a challenge of keeping people updated, informed and engaged. However, this is not an easy time, and many people are struggling with the deluge of negative news. The year 2020, was already off to a rough start with the U.S. and Iran facing off earlier this year and has only gotten more challenging as the year went on. However, even given this particularly poor start to the year, the sentiment of the media has only gotten worse over the past number of weeks. In Figure one below, you can see that as the coronavirus became more of a pressing issue in Germany, the average sentiment of the news over this period has gotten considerably worse. Interestingly, the generally more positive media in Germany (who would have guessed?) quickly converged towards the sentiment level of the Swiss and Austrian newspapers. It is important to keep in mind that although this has been a general decline, we can see that around the same period as measures restricting people’s movements, access to work and general connection with the outside world started to increase, the sentiment of the German media began to decline rapidly. Similar slumps are visible in the newspapers in Austria and Switzerland as well, however both show some recent recovery in tone.

However, while the news cycle has been changing dramatically and the sentiment of the news in German media progressively has gotten much worse, there have been some things happening, which to the untrained eye would seem quite strange — The Rise of the Toilet Paper. As people responded to the worries surrounding a total lockdown, and access to their local supermarkets (a worry which the government has consistently sought to allay), one stable of most shopping trips rose to increased prominence, and appears to be on a roll in the amount of media coverage it is receiving. In Figure two below, you can see that whereas back in January the German media rarely spoke of toilet paper (a bum deal if you ask us), it is now appearing in almost 1% of all news stories in the German media. While the matter has seen similar increase in urgency in Austria and Switzerland, it appears to be much big(ger) business in Germany. This rapid ascent of toilet paper prominence contains something some would consider ‘tear-able’, the worry by some, that we will run out. In Australia for example, we have seen the media approach the rise in concern in a slightly unique way, by printing a special eight-page insert in the newspaper, which can be cut out and converted into toilet paper — such extreme measures have not yet appeared in Germany, but if the issue is not flushed away, perhaps we may see similar moves.

So what can we learn about this rise in attention — is the coverage positive or negative? Well, according to data we have collected, the news surrounding the toilet paper crisis, is in general, not really associated with a positive sentiment, but it has remained more or less stable over the past number of weeks. In particular, we can see that rising from before the crisis really began, that the sentiment hovers slightly below neutral in a generally slightly negative view towards toilet paper mentions. This sentiment on toilet paper, which is unlikely to be extremely positive, as there is only so much positive sentiment which can be expected on toilet paper, does help us understand a little bit more about the coverage of rushes on household necessities.

While the country comparison already highlights the importance of geography on the matter, there are, of course, substantial differences across regions. For the sake of simplicity and focus, we concentrate on intra-German specificities for this evaluation. Figure four below presents the according zooms. While some regions came out of the blocks very early, such as Berlin and Brandenburg, in giving the issue a lot of media coverage, their interest in the crisis appears to have subsided as it is now a region that covers it almost the least. Aside from Brandenburg, we can see that in the land of the early risers (“Das Land der Frühaufsteher”, Saxony-Anhalt), that interest in covering the toilet-paper crisis continues to be a big issue. We can only speculate if it is the urgency thereof that forces their early rising. In most other states of Germany, interest started late and spiked relatively quickly and they are now returning to general ambivalence on toilet paper.

So what can we learn from how the media in Germany have covered the toilet paper panic, following precautions taken to deal with the outbreak of the coronavirus? It appears that interest in the issue is based around an initial panic, which lead (or was created, who can say?) to a spike in the attention paid by the media Then, as people realise the panic was misplaced, and that buying a year’s supply of toilet paper was perhaps a little pre-emptive, it levelled off in most regions. However, while the panic may be misplaced, there appears to have been real concern and panic surrounding the issue, and perhaps toilet paper as one of the more ludicrous (or humorous) items to stockpile served as a lightning rod for much bigger panic sweeping grocery stores across Germany.

Disclaimer: All calculations and visualizations are based on a sample of more than 3 Mio news articles from the RegNeS database. The database has been established and is maintained by Prof. Tom Broekel at the University of Stavanger in Norway. It represents a daily collection of German-language newspaper headlines and snippets since July 2019. It covers more than 300 news sources from Germany, Austria, Lichtenstein, Luxembourg and Switzerland. Most of these are local and regional newspapers, which the presented analysis is exclusively based.

I am a Professor in Regional Innovation at the University of Stavanger, Norway. I explore the relation of geography, innovation, technology and economics.

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