Effective media reporting can serve the purpose of being a trustworthy source of reliable guidance related to health and safety as Covid-19, having been classified as a ‘pandemic’ by the World Health Organization (WHO), continues to spread around the world. The fight against the fast-spreading virus has accelerated in multiple spaces. One of these spaces is social media, where misinformation is rife. How can journalists and news organizations help?

Ravale Mohydin 25 March 2020

As Covid-19 continues to spread around the world, the fight against the fast-spreading virus has accelerated in multiple spaces. One of these spaces is social media, where misinformation is rife. According to Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO), the world is ‘not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic’. The WHO has defined this infodemic as ‘an overabundance of information—some accurate and some not—that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it’. To quantify the extent of the problem, according to a Washington Post report, almost two million tweets containing conspiracy theories about Covid-19 circulated over a period of three weeks in January and February 2020. As the spread of Covid-19 gathers momentum, it would be reasonable to assume that misinformation and conspiracy theories will find even more fertile ground.

Effective media reporting can serve the purpose of trustworthy sources and reliable guidance related to health and safety during what has been classified as a ‘pandemic’ by the WHO. Media can be utilized as a tool for efficacious health communication, provided the following evidence-based strategies are implemented:

  • Research has shown that early reporting of disasters tends to exaggerate the crisis. There is a tendency to cover the news hastily, rather than accurately. This leads to a deluge of information that does not appear to match current realities on the ground. Fact-checking must be prioritized as early on as possible and remain a priority throughout. Reporters and journalists, especially in the case of health emergencies such as Covid-19, should be cognizant of early news reporting appearing alarmist, potentially leading to lower engagement from news consumers or creating space for conspiracy theorists. As Covid-19 has spread, news reporting on the novel coronavirus, as with other disasters, should be expanded as more people start to pay serious attention to the threat as it comes closer to home. That means such people are consuming news with even less understanding of the situation than previously engaged audiences. It is important for journalists, reporters and news editors to continue to produce content with accurate information as the situation unfolds.
  • While producing news and digital content, journalists, reporters and editors can follow the below guidelines:
    • Follow trusted sources of information such as local and international health authorities as well as public health experts on a regular basis to provide accurate and updated information.
    • Highlight areas and populations that are most likely to be affected.
    • Ensure only trusted public health and infectious diseases experts are provided with a media platform to ensure accurate information reaches audiences. Journalists can interview nurses as they are more likely to provide practical information related to prevention and disease control than doctors.
    • Importantly, in order to promote sensitive reporting, journalists must avoid ‘otherizing’ those that may be at risk. They must share information about who is at risk without implying blame or that particular populations are not part of the target audience. Additionally, news items must be cognizant of not singling out or causing more harm or distress to any particular group (an example of such an article is claiming African Americans do not get coronavirus by virtue of their race) or using descriptors or references that may be considered provocative to the point of being racist (an example being referring to Covid-19 as a ‘Chinese’ virus).
    • Avoid airing conspiracy theories. Instead, media professionals can comb through social media to determine sources of confusion and provide timely information.
    • Emphasize preventative measures.
    • Create engaging and user-friendly television and digital content.
  • News fatigue - the exhaustion that accompanies staying informed - can be a deterrent for effective utilization of media as a health communication tool. With the coronavirus, the seemingly endless flow of information can be daunting and confusing, with many opting to stay away from the news and thus remain uninformed and potentially unprepared. It is recommended that news organizations produce easily accessible and trusted digital content that is easy to digest in terms of length and content for WhatsApp and other platforms.
  • Media coverage of disasters tends to be politically charged, with media coverage of Covid-19 being no exception. The media coverage has included, for example, China and the US trading barbs about the origin of the virus. News broadcasts regularly feature US President Donald Trump calling the coronavirus a ‘Chinese’ virus even when reporters reminded him of the racism that many Asian-Americans are currently facing. Such blame deflection tactics by the White House are believed to feed conspiracy theories as well as fake news on social media. Media coverage of Covid-19 would benefit from not highlighting political blame games, using accurate labels and providing scientific information. Modal expressions used in news coverage by reporters and journalists related to the truth of statements, obligation to stipulate action by any person or organization, permission for a person, organization or government to perform an action as well as potential or expected desirability of that action must be carefully monitored.
  • As noted above, disaster news coverage has been documented to be taxing for mental health and may aggravate underlying anxiety and depression. Constant news of the novel coronavirus pandemic can be distressing and may cause feelings of helplessness and loss of control. Media coverage of Covid-19 can benefit from a number of strategies including promoting audience engagement by fostering a sense of community (an example of this is call-in shows), motivating the audience (an example of this is highlighting stories of citizens’ resilience as well areas that have recovered from the outbreak and are returning to normalcy), and by showcasing competence (by seeking, for example, opportunities to show virologists, epidemiologists, vaccine makers and geneticists at work to help).
  • While reporting on the novel coronavirus, journalists and reporters can consider the following safety guidelines while protecting themselves and the community:
    • If a journalist falls in one of the immunocompromised categories, they should reconsider undertaking the reporting assignment, even if it is local.
    • Reconsider all work-related travel. If necessary, and travel to an affected country is possible, all precautions related to health and safety along with contingency plans must be considered, keeping latest developments pertaining to security, nutrition and access in mind.
    • Consider the potentially negative psychological impact of reporting on novel coronavirus for journalists and their loved ones.
    • Journalists must practice digital security before, during and after an assignment.
    • Journalists must have access to legal, communication and health resources while reporting on Covid-19 in multiple countries to manage potential punitive measures taken by authoritarian governments against them, to navigate immigration and visa controls considering ever-changing travel restrictions and to monitor health and safety. Journalists must not travel if they are sick and have access to resources if they self-quarantine.
    • While on assignment, journalists must practice social distancing and all precautionary measures to ensure their own and others’ safety.

As more countries undergo or face the prospect of lockdowns and travel bans, threatening global connectivity, it is important that information provision remains as unpolluted as possible to ensure beneficial communication both now and in the future. Quickly recapping the above, journalists, reporters and editors can focus on the following in their reporting the novel coronavirus:

  • Only cite and engage regularly with trusted information sources including local, national and international health authorities.
  • Ensure only trusted public health and infectious diseases experts are provided with a media platform to ensure accurate information reaches audiences.
  • Avoid providing coverage to conspiracy theories, even if to debunk them, unless absolutely necessary due to said conspiracy theory becoming prominent and causing harm.
  • Define all health and safety terms for greater clarity and increased access in each news story.
  • Avoid ‘otherizing’ those that may be at risk. They must share information about who is at risk without implying blame or that particular populations are not part of the target audience.
  • Exercise care before, during and after reporting on the novel coronavirus for one’s own health and safety as well as the communities they belong to.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of the TRT World Research Centre.