What the media covers matters. Directly and indirectly it influences government policy and company decisions. So what is discussed in the media, and when it is discussed, matters.
So it’s helpful to be able to predict what will appear in the media.
Predicting what will be in the media isn’t complicated. It’s just hard.
Predicting when something will be in the media is much harder.
That’s because of the difference between new and important things.
The media, largely, focuses on what’s new.
Lots of things are important, but, on any given day, they aren’t new.
For instance, before Covid, vaccines got very little media coverage. They were important, but not new.
And then, like Covid, there’s suddenly lots of media reporting on preparations, vaccines and protective equipment.
Predicting when an event (like Covid) will happen, and trigger media discussion is extremely hard. Many of the events are either random (e.g. a viral mutation) or require extremely deep expertise and modelling.
Most important things do get reported, eventually. And with a major story like Covid, you can approximately predict what will be discussed, even if you can’t predict when.
That means that if you establish a reputation as an expert in that issue, then you can be prepared when it becomes newsworthy.
You can predict that’s going to be in the media, because the media largely chase what’s newsworthy, not what’s important. You can be prepared, if you know what’s important.
Experts know what’s important
Talk to experts in any area and they will tell you the questions that matter. Simply ask experts what should be discussed in the media, but isn’t.
Important issues don’t, typically, change quickly. Major scientific breakthroughs are relatively rare – so what’s important stays the same from month to month.
Poll fifty experts, and you will quickly find what issues they find important. Even asking ten will help you.
Our experience of Covid vaccines in the last year suggests that it is possible to predict future media interest.
Covid vaccines: Experts predicted what would be discussed
Experts in late 2020 predicted future issues of media interest accurately.
Andrey Zarur, visionary CEO of GreenLight Biosciences (and a client), was writing and talking extensively about the risks from the Covid virus mutating back in November 2020. He identified the threat to the world of unconstrained spread among the world’s younger people. These infections didn’t always cause many deaths, but they gave the virus millions of opportunities to become more harmful. The media only turned their attention to this problem in early 2021, months later.
Alongside this Andrey Zarur pointed out the serious shortage of vaccine doses, again only mainstream months later. And, early on, he pointed out the fragility of vaccine supply chains, and the difficulties we would have making enough vaccine for the world.
He wasn’t alone here of course, experts like Prashant Yadav from the Center for Global Development were saying the same things.
The media didn’t entirely ignore these issues of course. Experts like Andrey were extensively quoted in media outlets, from Wired to the Financial Times and CNBC, discussing vaccine supply chains. But these weren’t particularly newsworthy points of view in late 2020. So these challenges, and viral mutation, weren’t covered by many outlets in depth. The media only moved onto these issues in early 2021.
Some experts were months ahead of the curve here. This has an important implication. If you are an expert you can anticipate what the media will report on.
Experts can prepare. And they can establish reputations with the media, before interest in a topic increases.
Putting my neck on the line: What’s next
It’s easy for me to claim this though. Can I really predict the evolution of the Covid vaccine story?
There are some vaccine stories that will clearly keep on running for some time: Mutations in the Covid virus, effectiveness of vaccines over time and, most importantly, making enough vaccines for the whole world. This is uncontroversial.
However I believe there are four areas that look likely to get more attention from the media in future months, based on discussion with vaccine experts.
Least surprising will be vaccination of children. It’s very hard to keep Covid transmission down, especially if you don’t even try to vaccinate the 20% of your population who are under 18. In the UK we already routinely vaccinate children for flu, mainly because of their role in spreading infections. Rich countries will move on to vaccinating children in the near future, and it’s likely we’ll end up vaccinating virtually all children.
Closely related, we are likely to see new delivery mechanisms which will both reduce cold chain challenges, and make it easier to give vaccines. Many people, including my clients at GreenLight Biosciences, are already working on this.
Pricing will also become more relevant over time. Right now most countries would be willing to pay $100s per dose. If we end up with annual vaccination, then saving $100ms a year on vaccines will become relevant to many governments.
Finally, and barely discussed at all right now, we may end up vaccinating farm animals. If the virus keeps mutating in animals, then it will become harder to keep up with the virus. So in time we are likely to be discussing this option.
So is it easy to predict what’s in the media? No.
But is it possible? Yes. Experts have a strong idea of what is important. And that only changes quite slowly over time.
So if you want to be relevant, aim at what’s important, and, sometime, the news will come to you.
Appendix – How has the media reported on Covid
From mid 2020 to early 2021, we created a weekly database of which Covid vaccine subjects the media were reporting on. We only tracked global leading media outlets like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Financial Times, as well as specialist outlets such as Stat. When we compared them to more popular media outlets we found most of the same subjects covered, simply a few days later in more mainstream publications.
Early October. The FDA’s vaccine safety decisions drove reporting, because no vaccines had been approved.
Mid November 2020: After the BioNTech vaccine trial reported success there was a flood of discussion about vaccine effectiveness, volumes immediately available for rollout, types of vaccines (RNA compared to others) and how to interpret the results.
Late November 2020: The media’s focus moved to regulatory approval ahead of the UK decision on 2nd December.
Early January 2021: Reporting had moved on to getting it into people’s arms – would people actually take it? And why did so many wealthy countries appear to be making slow progress?
Mid February 2021: Focus had moved to volumes. Could the EU get enough, fast? And what about the rest of the world? How did vaccine supply chains work? And discussion increasingly moved on to mutations, prompting the first mentions of booster shots.