NEW YORK, N.Y. – Covering the coronavirus story requires careful navigation and constant attention.
News organizations trying to responsibly report on the growing health crisis are confronted with the task of conveying its seriousness without provoking panic, keeping up with a torrent of information while much remains a mystery and continually advising readers and viewers how to stay safe.
The coronavirus has sickened thousands, quarantined millions and sent financial markets reeling — all while some cultural critics say the story is overblown.
“It’s hard to tell people to put something into context and to calm down when the actions being taken in many cases are very strong or unprecedented,” said Glen Nowak, director of the Grady College Center for Health and Risk Communication at the University of Georgia.
“I keep reminding the viewers that still, based on two very large studies, the vast majority of people who get this infection are not going to get sick,” said Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s medical correspondent. “They’re going to have a mild illness, if any, and they’re going to recover. This tends to be very reassuring to people. But I don’t want to minimize this. We’re dealing with something that is growing and becoming a legitimate pandemic.”
“Pandemic” — defined by Webster’s as an outbreak that occurs over a wide geographic area and affects an exceptionally high proportion of the population — is one of the scary-sounding words and phrases that some journalists take care about using.
Fahey said the AP avoids calling it a “deadly” disease because, for most people, it isn’t. Dr. John Torres, medical correspondent at NBC News, edits out phrases like “horrific” or “catastrophic.”
Images, too, merit careful consideration. Pictures of people wearing face masks often illustrate stories, despite evidence that the masks matter little in transmission of the virus, Nowak said.
Sensational headlines can grab attention yet also unnecessarily frighten. An Atlantic magazine article last week was headlined “You’re Likely to Get the Coronavirus.”
Sensationalism actually tends to decline in these situations, said Peter Sandman, a consultant and expert in risk communication.
“Reporters love to sensationalize trivia or rare risks — think flesh-eating bacteria — to give their audience a vicarious thrill,” Sandman said. “But when risks get serious and widespread, media coverage gets sober.”
CNN’s Gupta has talked about people needing to consider “social distancing” if pockets of infection build in the United States. He has revealed on the air that his own house is stocked with supplies in case his family has to remain home for any period of time.
“People could be frightened by that,” Gupta conceded. “It’s not the intent. It’s in the way that you convey these things.”
The virus produces a seemingly endless supply of stories that stretch beyond the medical: Wall Street’s tumble, school and business closings, concert cancellations. The makers of Corona beer denied reports that the similarity of its name to the virus was hurting business. Italians are shying away from traditional kisses on the cheek. Churchgoers are nervous about handshake greetings of peace.
As is inevitable in divided times, the coronavirus has become a political issue in the United States, where commentators are weighing in on how President Donald Trump is reacting to the crisis. On Fox News, Donald Trump Jr. said of the Democrats: “For them to try to take a pandemic, and hope it comes here and kills millions of people so they can end Donald Trump’s streak of winning, is a new level of sickness.”
CNN’s Gupta said he tries to be wary of what politicians say about the coronavirus.