covering COVID-19

The new coronavirus has already become the biggest story in our world, with numbers growing around the world according to the Johns Hopkins University & Medicine COVID-19 map. This global public health emergency — one of the six declared in recent years by the World Health Organization (WHO), beginning with the 2009 Swine flu — has already wiped out billions of dollars from the global economy, and according to Bloomberg could eventually cost the economy a total of $2.7 trillion. Check out GIJN’s Resource Center for our guide to covering COVID-19 and more resources on the crisis. 

Despite all these numbers and estimates, it is difficult to fathom how far COVID-19 might spread, and what the ultimate consequences will be. With all the uncertainties, journalists around the world are faced with the many challenges of covering the epidemic — including combating misinformation and health risks to reporters in the field — while not fueling panic.

To support journalists in their coverage, GIJN’s Miraj Chowdhury pulled together advice from various journalism organizations, experienced journalists, and experts. We plan to continue rolling out resources for reporting, including guides in GIJN’s regional languages and on our social media channels. For now, you can find our Bangla COVID-19 guide here, a story from GIJN-Chinese about COVID-19 visualizations in Chinese media, and investigative tips from infectious  disease expert Thomas Abraham, author of books on SARS and polio.

Responsible Reporting

“These stories often used frightening language; for example, 50 articles used the phrase ‘killer virus.’” —Karin Wall-Jorgensen, Cardiff University

In her latest research, Karin Wahl-Jorgensen, a journalism professor at Cardiff University, examined how fear has played a role in COVID-19 coverage in 100 high circulation newspapers from around the world. She found that one out of every nine stories on the outbreak mentioned “fear” or related words, including “afraid.”

“These stories often used other frightening language as well; for example, 50 articles used the phrase ‘killer virus,’’’ she writes in this Nieman Lab article.

So, how can we avoid spreading panic while continuing to provide deep and balanced coverage? According to Poynter’s Al Tompkins (who plans to put out a daily newsletter about COVID-19), the solution is responsible reporting. Here is a summary of his suggestions:

  1. Reduce the use of subjective adjectives in reporting; for example: “deadly” disease.
  2. Use pictures carefully to avoid spreading the wrong message.
  3. Explain preventive actions; it can make your story less scary.
  4. Remember that statistical stories are less scary than anecdotal ones.
  5. Avoid clickbait headlines and be creative in presentation.

In another Poynter piece, Tom Jones emphasizes finding the facts, but not the speeches. “It’s a science story, not a political one,” he writes. Of course, politics matter, but be alert for COVID-19 spin from partisan political sources, and rely upon medical experts.

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By Miraj Ahmed Chowdhury, Global Investigative Journalism Network

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