In hindsight, 2020 was a year like no one could have predicted.
Going into the year, we knew there would be a presidential primary and election. We could have guessed politics, in the era of President Donald Trump, would remain divisive, to say the least. We even knew a coronavirus had begun disrupting life in China.
It would have been nearly impossible to imagine back then that it would erupt into a global pandemic that would kill over 1.5 million people globally and turn life completely upside down for everyone else.
We’ve been using our Taboola Newsroom platform to monitor which topics were capturing readers’ attention throughout this crisis and tragedy-stricken year.
The list below includes the top 50 news topics for 2020 in terms of page views to news articles about the topics, as determined by our natural language processing AI.
The sample of readership is drawn from the websites of Taboola’s news publisher partners, which includes well over 1,000 sites from those belonging to local newspapers to the biggest national TV news networks.
The methodology section below provides further details on the data set.
50 – Seattle (209 million)
Big cities like Seattle, several of which will appear on this list, are in the news daily for any number of reasons: local government, professional sports, traffic/weather reports, crime, etc.
For this list, we’ll attempt to look at the moments when interest in the cities were unexpectedly high.
For Seattle, that happened in June during the protests in the wake of George Floyd‘s killing. Protesters in Seattle created an autonomous zone, said to be outside the jurisdiction of the city’s police department. The zone lasted for weeks before the city eventually retook the area.
49 – Minneapolis (224 million)
Minneapolis is where it all started. The protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death began in late May.
Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer who kneeled on Floyd’s neck for nearly eight minutes. The protests quickly spread across the US and around the globe. Some scholars believe it may have been the biggest protest movement in the history of the US.
48 – Detroit (225 million)
Unlike Minneapolis, Detroit was a top 200 topic every single month of the year, but it only reached the top 50 in March.
47 – Houston (229 million)
Houston is similar to Detroit in that it was a top 200 topic each month.
The city was among the top 50 most popular topics in June, coinciding with the memorial service of George Floyd, who was raised there and remembered as a talented football player and a caring mentor to young men in need of guidance.
46 – Walmart (231 million)
The massive retailer was a top-200 topic each month, but only cracked the top 30 in November, coinciding with Black Friday.
The pandemic brought huge demand for delivered supplies so companies like Walmart became massively important all year, and while the corporation’s profits soared, research found that most of its employees weren’t reaping much of the benefits.
Walmart also recently announced plans to administer Covid vaccines at its stores across the country.
45 – Murder (237 million)
Almost every news outlet covers crime so it’s no surprise to see murder among the most read topics.
Some high profile stories from 2020 include Saudi Arabia’s sentencing of eight people for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the arrest of two men for the 2002 murder of Run-DMC’s Jam Master Jay, and various updates about the arrival of “murder hornets” in the US.
And while the overall murder rate did see an uncharacteristic rise in 2020, it’s also worth noting that research has found significant issues with the way the news industry at large covers crime, which has the net effect of causing people to believe the world is more dangerous than it actually is.
44 – Iran (237 million)
Readership of articles about Iran peaked in January, during a period of extremely high tensions and escalating actions between the US and Iran.
US airstrikes in late December 2019 targeted Iran-backed militia positions in Iraq and Syria. On New Year’s Eve, protesters stormed a US embassy in Iraq, which Trump blamed on Iran and responded with threats.
Days later, a US attack killed the powerful Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. Iran and Soleimani were the 8th and 9th most read about topics in January.
43 – Gretchen Whitmer (251 million)
The governor of Michigan was not a trending topic until the coronavirus hit. In March, Whitmer first appeared in our top 200 topics at position 104.
Articles about her exploded in popularity in April when her aggressive and decisive actions to combat the spread of the virus became one of the first of what would become a predictable series of counterproductive political flash points related to the pandemic.
President Trump attempted to undermine Whitmer’s approach when he tweeted “LIBERATE MICHIGAN” on April 17. The reverberations of this political controversy took a dark turn in October, when 12 men were arrested for an alleged plot to kidnap and murder the governor.
42 – World Health Organization (257 million)
The United Nations public health agency has been at the center of the global effort to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
In March, the WHO declared the coronavirus to be a global pandemic and offered early guidance on testing and possible treatments. In April, Trump began feuding with the organization and eventually announced he intended to halt US funding to the WHO.
41 – Gavin Newsom (257 million)
Like Gov. Whitmer, California’s governor also first broke into the top 200 in March with a call for the state’s 40 million residents to shelter in place to limit the explosive spread of the coronavirus.
It wasn’t until May that Newsom became a top 20 topic as the state was one of the first to begin efforts to reopen after weathering its first wave of the virus.
40 – Amazon (259 million)
The ubiquitous online retailer was among the top 200 most popular topics every single month of 2020. Of course, readers looked to news sites for advice on the best deals, but Amazon was also frequently in the news for concerns over workplace safety as its warehouse employees, Whole Foods staff, and delivery drivers became crucial lifelines for supplies for a mostly locked down nation.
Readership about Amazon peaked in October, when the company held its annual Amazon Prime Day sales.
The same month, the company revealed nearly 20,000 of its workers had been infected with Covid-19.
39 – Instagram (261 million)
The Facebook-owned social network was in the top 200 topics every month in 2020, as it’s become a hub of celebrity news, as well as other lifestyle content that’s often featured on news sites.
Instagram was in the top 40 topics, it’s highest position of the year, in October likely due to some pre-election news of Facebook banning accounts from QAnon conspiracy theory peddlers and Instagram making feature changes to limit the spread of misinformation on the network.
38 – Nancy Pelosi (272 million)
The speaker of the house was also a top 200 topic in every month of the year. She reached the top 25 in February, spurred in part by a swell of coverage about her ripping up a copy of Trump’s state of the union speech.
Pelosi then reached the top 20 in September and October, as she pushed for a fresh coronavirus relief package ahead of the November elections.
37 – IRS (280 million)
The majority of the readership to articles about the IRS happened in April, when the agency was tasked with sending out coronavirus relief checks and direct deposits of up to $1,200 to millions of Americans.
36 – The US House of Representatives (280 million)
Democrats from the House delivered articles of impeachment against Donald Trump to the Senate in mid January, which set the stage for a trial that began later in the month prosecuted by a team of representatives.
The legislative body was front and center in the news again in April, when Americans looked to the government for economic relief amid the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic.
35 – Cowboys (281 million)
The Dallas NFL squad has one of, if not the, biggest national followings among all teams in the league.
It was a top 200 topic every month of 2020, peaking at 10 in October when starting quarterback Dak Prescott had season-ending surgery. The Cowboys were still the 25th most popular topic in November, even as the team fell to last place in its division.
34 – Coronavirus Task Force (281 million)
When the pandemic began to hit the US hard in March, Trump set up a task force led by Vice President Mike Pence to coordinate federal, state, and local responses.
The task force provided daily press conference updates that quickly became must-see TV.
33 – Atlanta (291 million)
Atlanta peaked as the 8th most read about news topic during the month of June, when police fatally shot Rayshard Brooks when he was attempting to run away from them.
The shooting added fuel to the fire of a wave of protests that swept the nation in the wake of the death of George Floyd weeks earlier
32 – Facebook (293 million)
Interest in articles about Facebook peaked in June, when the company announced it would no longer allow politicians free rein to promote false and misleading claims.
The reversal of a long-held policy was sparked in part by increasingly audacious lies by Trump on the platform.
Facebook had been facing an advertiser boycott due to its inaction on both misinformation and hate speech on the network.
31 – Obama (295 million)
Both Barack Obama and Michelle Obama are frequently in the news. The topic “Obama” peaked as the 8th most read about topic in May, as the former president criticized the federal response to the pandemic and a documentary featuring the former first lady aired on Netflix.
Our AI was a bit more specific in August, when it specified “Michelle Obama” as the 20th most popular topic, aligning with her stirring speech at the Democratic National Convention.
30 – Unemployment (298 million)
The unemployment rate had been on a steady decline since 2011 and not many people were reading about it — that is until the coronavirus hit the US in March.
Within two months, the unemployment rate skyrocketed from below 4% to above 14%, erasing more than a decade of gains since the 2008 recession. The topic has been in the news weekly since March, as it’s seen as a bellwether for how the pandemic is impacting the economy.
29 – Chicago (328 million)
Chicago was a top 200 topic every month of 2020.
28 – Patriots (332 million)
Things haven’t got much better since the season started, as the team faces the possibility of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
27 – NBA/basketball (338 million)
January and February were the months when the NBA was highest on our topics chart in terms of page views, propelled by not only the games being played but also the shocking and tragic death of Kobe Bryant.
March brought news that the season would be suspended, and interest in the league has been down ever since. Even when the season did resume, the eventual NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers were only the 25th most popular topic on our list in October during their championship run.
Due to a change with how our AI categorized topics, we combined page views for NBA (January – May) and basketball (June – November) to get the total for this topic cluster.
26 – Kobe Bryant (359 million)
An unthinkable tragedy struck on Jan. 26, when 41-year-old NBA legend Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna were among 9 victims of a fatal helicopter crash in California.
Bryant was the 4th most read about news topic in January and the 6th in February. The amount that readership about the tragedy surpassed other massive news events helps put into context the impact his loss had on people across the country.
Articles about Kobe Bryant have received 70% more views than articles about impeachment and over 450% more than articles about the Super Bowl among US readers over the past 7 days (via @Taboola Topic Insights). pic.twitter.com/P7ZTZgB7Fk
— Fran Berkman (@FranBerkman) February 3, 2020
25 – Twitter (363 million)
Twitter made a splash in May when it began fact-checking and censoring tweets from Trump, after a years long policy granting users wide leeway in what qualifies permissible speech on the network.
The company continued making news in its ongoing quest for the best way to limit misinformation ahead of the election when it received flak for its initial handling of a questionably sourced article about Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden.
24 – Hand Sanitizer (374 million)
Among the many problems caused by the coronavirus pandemic was a massive shortage of hand sanitizer.
23 – Bernie Sanders (424 million)
For the second consecutive Democratic presidential primary, Bernie Sanders proved his brand of progressive politics has mass appeal.
In fact, through February he seemed to be the frontrunner to win the nomination, and as such he was in the top 5 most popular topics of that month.
Things started to unravel for Sanders in early March after Biden, the eventual nominee and president elect, won big on Super Tuesday.
22 – Fox (444 million)
Fox News is one of the most popular news outlets in the country and certainly the one that attracts the most criticism from others for its morning and prime time commentary programming that often strays so far from the facts, that even Fox has argued in court that no “reasonable viewer” would take it seriously.
This misleading programming reached an inflection point in early 2020 when Fox hosts ping-ponged from denying the coronavirus was a big issue to briefly taking it seriously to quickly pushing for Trump to end public health-focused restrictions.
21 – Prince Harry (493 million)
Among the biggest stories of the new year in 2020 was the news that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle were stepping back from their duties as members of Britain’s royal family.
Harry was a top 15 topic in both January and February. Royal readership dropped significantly in March as people turned their focus to Covid.
20 – GOP (496 million)
The “grand old party,” a nickname for the Republican Party, was a top 100 topic every month of 2020.
Readership about the GOP peaked at 8th in, you guessed it, November, when the party outperformed expectations in congressional elections.
19 – Tom Brady (511 million)
After 20 seasons and 6 Super Bowl titles with the New England Patriots, Brady decided to sign with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in March.
In an almost unbelievable streak of consistency reminiscent of his on-field play, Brady was a top 25 news topic every month from January through May — despite the fact that there were no football games played for most of that time and a global pandemic was disrupting every aspect of life in the US.
18 – Centers for Disease Control (557 million)
The US public health agency has been at the center of efforts to coordinate the federal response to the coronavirus.
More than half of the page views about the CDC for the entire year happened in March and April, when we saw unprecedented spikes in news readership for anything related to the virus.
17 – Anthony Fauci (572 million)
Staying on topic, Dr. Anthony Fauci, longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has basically become the face of the US response to the coronavirus.
Fauci has become something of a cultural icon for his straight-talking, nonpartisan, science and research-based guidance at a time when Americans have come to expect little more than inaction and political wrangling from the federal government.
16 – Senate (640 million)
It was just outside the top 10 in September during the debate over whether Trump should attempt to appoint a replacement for Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court, and again in October when it confirmed Amy Coney Barrett to be the next justice.
The Senate returned to the top 10 in November when control of the chamber was up for grabs in the elections.
15 – Cuomo (662 million)
New York was the first major epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the US, thrusting Gov. Andrew Cuomo into the national spotlight.
Cuomo earned praise for his informational and candid daily briefings, but many news organizations also reported how delays and missteps by Cuomo and other New York officials let the virus spread out of control.
The governor’s brother, CNN anchor Chirs Cuomo, also became an object, rather than deliverer, of news in late March when he announced he had contracted the virus. The lingering effects of Covid continued to impact the younger Cuomo for months after the diagnosis.
14 – Impeachment (769 million)
The impeachment of Donald Trump was the most read about story in January and February of 2020 as the House of Representative voted to bring articles of impeachment to the Senate, which eventually declined to remove Trump from office after a trial.
Even with all of the page views, many Americans had a surprisingly small appetite for information about the historic event.
13 – China (763 million)
China was a top 25 US news topic from January through August. Initially, US readers were following negotiations between the Trump administration and Beijing on a new trade deal and watching the early spread of the coronavirus from afar.
As the virus began to proliferate in the US, news coverage about China focused on Trump’s “blame game” rhetoric.
12 – Masks (782 million)
At first, top US public health officials advised people to not wear masks despite the surging coronavirus, but they soon did an about-face.
Since then, readers have turned to news sites to read about the best types of masks to acquire, whether or not to continue to wear a mask after recovering from Covid and the latest incidents in what has become a disappointing and wholly unnecessary culture war over wearing a mask.
11 – Meghan Markle (826 million)
In the most recent season of Netflix’s The Crown, an ongoing theme is Prince Charles’s inability to cope with the fact that his wife Diana frequently got more media attention and praise.
It seems Charles’s son Harry may be experiencing something similar, though he certainly seems to be handling it more gracefully and it doesn’t appear to be causing any rifts in their relationship.
Markle was the 3rd most popular news topic in January, behind Trump and the impeachment, and she has been among the top 20 most popular monthly topics six times in 2020.
10 – Supreme Court (830 million)
The nation’s highest court suffered a massive loss in September when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died at age 87.
Just the second woman appointed to the Supreme Court, Ginsburg was memorialized for her legacy of fighting for gender equality and social justice.
Like basically everything else in 2020, her death sparked a massive political battle over whether or not Trump should be allowed to appoint a replacement so close to the upcoming presidential election.
9 – White House (852 million)
As interesting as it is that Melania Trump built a new White House tennis pavilion, this topic is among the top 10 most read about of the year both because there was a presidential election and because the building is often used as a metonym in news headlines to represent actions taken by the administration.
About 300 million of the White House page views came during the coronavirus traffic spike in March. The topic was also the 5th most popular in October and November corresponding to peak election season.
8 – Racism (1.2 billion)
The death of George Floyd in late May sparked a worldwide wave of protests about racial disparities in policing.
This reckoning has brought a sustained collective attention to related topics that is rarely seen in today’s frantically shifting news cycles.
Racism was among our top 10 most popular news topics every month from June through October.
7 – NFL/Football (1.2 billion)
The NFL was a top 10 topic from January through April before it somewhat inexplicably dropped off almost completely. The topic “football” remained extremely popular, returning to the top 10 for August through November.
Similar to what we saw with NBA/basketball, the AI that powers our tool seems to have changed the way it was aggregating/de-duplicating page view data and shifted the title topic.
Of course, “football” may also include articles about the NCAA and highschool football, but for the purpose of this analysis we’re counting it all under one banner. The takeaway here is football is by far the most popular sport in the US.
6 – Wuhan (1.3 billion)
In late 2019, the capital city of Hubei province in China became ground zero for the global coronavirus pandemic that would go onto kill more than one and a half million people in 2020.
A virology lab in the city was the object of some of the earliest conspiracy theories suggesting the virus was man made — speculation given air by President Trump, among others.
5 – Police Brutality (1.3 billion)
This topic goes hand-in-hand with the racism topic discussed earlier. It was the 5th most popular topic in June and remained in the top 10 through September.
One additional factor that gave this topic wind was that the global protest movement against the brutal and too often fatal treatment of unarmed Black people was met by police with a wave of violence against protesters, by some counts totaling nearly 1,000 incidents.
4 – Joe Biden (2.4 billion)
Biden’s popularity on news sites, unsurprisingly, coincided with his political success. He pushed into the top 10 topics for the first time in March, when his Super Tuesday performance made him the likely Democratic nominee for president.
3 – George Floyd (3 billion)
US presidents have been impeached just three times throughout history. Police kill hundreds of people a year, many of which receive little to no media coverage.
The fact that Floyd’s death was read about approximately four times as much as the impeachment is extremely significant. The coronavirus, past police killings of unarmed Black people, and ongoing Black Lives Matter activism are among the factors that primed US citizens to be so deeply moved by the excruciating video showing Floyd’s last moments.
It’s a complex story, but for more you can read our full analysis from earlier this year, “The Impact George Floyd’s Death Had on Americans Can’t Be Overstated.”
2 – Donald Trump (12.3 billion)
Perhaps the most surprising thing about this entire list is that Donald Trump was not at the top. Since the beginning of his presidential campaign in 2015, Trump has displayed a preternatural ability to attract attention from the news media, and of course it only grew once he occupied the most powerful office in the land.
In a reflection on the news media’s coverage of Trump earlier this year, Washington Post media critic Margaret Sullivan wrote:
“For nearly five years, the story has been Trump. And, in all that time, the press is still — mostly — covering him on the terms he dictates. We remain mesmerized, providing far too much attention to the daily circus he provides.”
1 – Coronavirus (14.4 billion)
We had become accustomed to our top monthly topics receiving around 400 million page views. When the coronavirus, within the span of weeks, catastrophically disrupted life as we know it, the influx of readers to news websites very likely surpassed the response to any news event since the dawn of the internet.
Articles about coronavirus on our network received nearly 4.5 billion views in March — about 1,000% of the top topic in February — and the amount of traffic to the top 200 topics in sum more than tripled month-over-month from 5 billion to 16 billion as the coronavirus caused everyone to have to figure out how to stay safe, acquire supplies, and find ways to carry on with their lives.
In news parlance, the coronavirus is an “everything story” — or a story that’s so big, it becomes a lens through which all other news stories must be told and/or retold.
The effort of news outlets, from local to national, to provide crucial information in a time of crisis was a demonstration of the incredible power of journalism.
Methodology: The monthly top 200 topics were exported from Taboola Newsroom’s Topic Insights, which uses natural language processing AI to determine the trending topics across our massive network of news publisher partner sites. We work with thousands of news sites in the US and include data from over 1,000 in Topic Insights, so our data set shows a significant sample of what people are reading on news sites.
We aggregated data for January through November to determine the top topics for the year. State names as well as “America” were the only topics excluded because they are overly broad. A small number of topics required further manual aggregation due to changes in how the NLP system detected the topics throughout the year. These include “Prince Harry” and “Harry,” “impeachment” and “impeachment in the United States,” “NBA” and “basketball,” as well as “NFL” and “football.”
In instances where two topics represent the same news event, we used the topic with the larger number of page views under the assumption that overlap likely represents duplicate page views. For a similar reason, we didn’t include “Covid 19″ or “Covid” as topics on this list, as it’s difficult to determine how many of the page views in those topics were overlapping with the page views to “coronavirus” articles, so we just used the “top-level” topic the AI was detecting.
Taboola Newsroom is an editorial insights tool we provide at no cost to Taboola’s news publisher partners. We’ve made the full data set for this research publicly available. Feel free to reach out to @franberkman with any questions or if you’d like to use our data for your research or reporting.