Photo by photologic, Flickr CC

This post was created in collaboration with the Minnesota Journalism Center

Coronavirus — also known as COVID-19 — has taken the global media world by storm. Over 2,000 have died and more than 79,000 are infected globally. The World Health Organization has been criticized for not declaring a public health emergency earlier than they did, but doctors including Dr. Emily Landon at the University of Chicago are saying that “people shouldn’t panic.” 

In cases of public health epidemics, whether people panic depends in part on how journalists cover the issue and which experts they cite. Journalists tend to quote official sources like government officials and public health officials to inform the public about outbreaks of illness including influenza, swine flu, Zika, Ebola, and more recently, coronavirus. Being quoted in news articles gives public health officials the opportunity to share their expertise on said topics to help inform readers about how to protect themselves and avoid infection. From a sociological perspective, focusing on the spread of information about pandemics and infectious diseases provides opportunities for scholars to comment on evolving social structures and processes in a way that will influence the biomedical sciences’ public and policy agenda.

As epidemiologist Adam Kucharski wrote in The Guardian, “stories sparking fear seem to have overtaken the outbreak in real life” and misinformation (a topic The Society Pages has written about here) seems to be more contagious than the virus itself. The “need for speed” in publishing journalistic updates about the virus as well as scholarly work has resulted in several retractions, including the retraction of a preprint of a scholarly paper after its analysis was found to be faulty. 

Further, the spread of information — and misinformation, including conspiracy theories — about health crises often occurs on social media platforms including Twitter and Instagram. Scholars found that false information spread especially quickly during Ebola outbreaks in West Africa and in the Zika outbreak in Brazil, which led to the formation of counterproductive policies passed by public health officials who struggled to combat false claims. In recent years, Instagram was found to be the most effective platform for health organizations including Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, and Doctors without Borders to engage followers during global health crises.
Scholars, including Dr. Anita Varma, recently published five tips for journalists on covering coronavirus. These include paying attention to the frames used and including quotes from official sources like government officials as well as the people directly affected by the health concern. Dr. Karin Wahl-Jorgensen published an article on the role that fear plays in narratives about public health crises. The bottom line is: The way stories are told matters and affects the management of pandemics and policy responses.