COVID Impact: 1918.

Photo Credit: New York Times Archives
In the fall of 1918, the Spanish influenza swept through America. Despite the intervening 100 years of scientific and medical progress, the experience of Americans through the influenza outbreak was largely the same as ours throughout COVID-19. The world grew quiet. Essential businesses were closed to protect their employees. Highly anticipated movies were postponed. Sports events were called off, leaving arenas empty. The political machinery that defines and drives election years ground to a halt. The nation watched from their homes in mounting concern as the disease spread and the body count grew. That year, much like 2020, was defined by a virus; every other aspect of contemporary life warped around it. There are a number of lessons to be learned from the Spanish flu when it comes to the media and communications landscape that are surprisingly relevant one hundred years later. We examined the New York Times’ coverage, one of the only papers to digitize their 1918 papers and make them publicly available. Today, the Times is still driven by the same fundamental journalistic model that it was a century ago: fact-driven, concise coverage that closely examines how global issues affect the average person. And in 1918, their coverage arc largely followed the same trajectory as today. Their reporters covered the disease in Europe much like today’s reporters covered it in China. They tracked the disease as the first cases cropped up in the United States. They reported on the disease as it spread like wildfire, costing Americans their lives and livelihoods. They did deep dives into the nature of the disease, how to prevent it, and who was most at risk of dying from it, much like they have today. Ultimately, their stories then and now are both driven by a desire to understand the disease and explain it, with the faith that Americans will take this information and heed the obvious warnings it offers. The 1918 coverage gives us a preview of what’s to come for media coverage of COVID-19: the mounting body count, a growing number of obituaries, the tragedies of nurses and other medical workers who contract the disease in the midst of doing their best to help others, and the eventual post-mortem. The moments where thought-leaders—experts at conferences, politicians, and scientists—ask what happened. How could the response have been better? How could we have saved tens or even hundreds of thousands of lives? Here is what we can learn from that coverage: as the number of cases and the death toll continue to grow, the share of COVID-19 focused coverage will proportionately grow. The disease was first covered in the early summer of 1918, but the deaths didn’t reach their peak until October. By that time, it was in the paper nearly every day for weeks on end, as the nation panicked and the body count skyrocketed. If 1918 is anything to go by, we aren’t out of the woods yet—coverage will likely still be wall-to-wall COVID-19 for some time to come as cases ebb and flow and the medical world seeks effective treatments and prevention measures. For the next few months, the world will have higher priorities than any given company’s PR goals. So, before you ask how best to communicate a wave of layoffs to the general public or pitch the media on your work from home policy, examine what more you could be doing to fight COVID-19 and help your customers and community. There will be plenty of opportunities for PR and positive media coverage when the dust settles. Right now, remember that reporters are people and are also scared of what is going on in the world. They are surrounded by reminders of the crisis, regardless of their usual beat—it’s unsurprising that this is all media outlets want to report on. As a result, there isn’t much space for a corporate voice in most top-tier, fact-driven outlets. But, there will be a space for you within a year when you’re explaining how you helped during the crisis that changed the world.


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