Journalists have a job to inform the public, but in an unprecedented public health crisis there is a fine line between informing and spreading fear — when does news help, when does it hurt and how can journalists best report on coronavirus?

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Sensationalize or solution-ize: Re-examining the role of news media in the age of COVID-19

Since COVID-19 first infected individuals in Wuhan, China, the mass media has provided constant coverage on the “novel” virus — and as coronavirus spread more significantly throughout the US, American news outlets’ headlines and top stories almost unanimously feature the latest updates of the pandemic.

Searching “COVID-19” on The New York Times’ website, for example, yields nearly 800,000 results. While this doesn’t mean 800,000 articles have been written, it does highlight the prevalence of coronavirus in the media’s discourse.

In this unprecedented public health crisis, the public’s constant engagement with the news —  which often features the rising deaths, lack of medical supplies and our plunging economy — can be linked to mental health issues, according to Life Sciences Communication Chair and Professor Dominique Brossard, who is an expert in risk communication. 

While the role of the news media has always been to inform the public, it has become important for journalists to reexamine their job to not only provide the latest statistics, but also show resilience as we — as a society — work through the crisis together.    

“One of the roles of journalism should be to help people navigate the world, not just to present the latest terrible statistics,” said Lucas Graves, an associate professor in UW-Madison’s School of Journalism.

Constant coverage, concerned public

People turn to the media — whether an article, TV, radio or social media — to look for information.

“In a sense the role of the media is what it always is which is to try to get useful information to people in the most timely fashion possible,” Graves said. “Of course that’s a lot more urgent in a crisis like this one than during a routine news day.”

However, Brossard explained the importance of considering people’s current circumstances when thinking about their relationship with the media during COVID-19.

Because most people are staying home they “likely are checking the news constantly.”

“The problem with this kind of behavior is that it can lead to an overwhelming feeling, it can lead to anxiety and it’s not good,” she added. “So we strongly advise people to try to not check the news constantly.”

While not specific to coronavirus coverage, a 2019 study by the American Psychological Association highlighted how news coverage can impact the public — more than half of American adults shared they want to stay informed about the news but following it causes them stress.

Brossard recommended that right now people should choose sources they trust, focus on what’s going on in their own communities — versus everywhere else in the world — and to pick a time during the day to look at the news versus checking it constantly.

“What we need now is that people have a sense that they control the situation, that they can manage what’s going on. And being constantly relying on the news is actually counterproductive,” she said.

During the current crisis, Graves explained reporters can best serve the public by sticking to journalism basics like avoiding clickbait headlines, sensationalization of facts and the spread of info that hasn’t been verified.

“Even without trying to sensationalize their coverage, it’s pretty easy for reporters — collectively — to produce reporting that’s sensationalistic and less helpful than it could be and drives fear more than it shares useful information,” he said.

Following these standards carefully becomes even more important because of the ease and speed information can spread with today’s technology, Brossard added.

“One news item can be amplified many times and potentially reach way more people than was originally intended,” she said.

This is crucial with regard to the virus’ risks and potential treatments, Graves added.

“Reporters have to recognize that, even if they note that a particular remedy hasn’t been proven, they still will potentially change people’s behavior on a large scale given how worried people are,” he said.

Health communication during crisis

Journalists should be selective in what developments surrounding coronavirus they choose to report, Graves said.

“How much value is there in having dozens of stories every day reporting on that day’s or that hour’s infection rates or the latest statistics?” he said.

Kate Christy, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism who researches health campaign communication, emphasized the importance of relying on medical experts while reporting — even if this means waiting to publish a story.

“This 24-hour news cycle and this need to break things as soon as possible is doing a lot of harm to public health communication because as soon as a story breaks they’re putting the story out there and it’s not a complete story,” she said.  

Instead, Christy believes reporters should wait to have the full picture. Because the public — and many reporters — do not have a significant medical background, additional levels of fact-checking are necessary to avoid miscommunications.

“I’m not medically trained in any way, shape or form so I couldn’t look at a story and tell you if it’s medically correct,” she said, using herself as an example. “I would have to have somebody who is a professional do that for me.”

Graves agreed journalists should exercise caution reporting medical or health advice, rely on the best expertise available and highlight what is unknown.  

Additionally, some reports — like current estimates of infection rates — can be flawed both because of limited health testing and variation in the types of statistical tests used which makes it difficult to compare one country to another, he explained.

“In that case it’s important for journalists to report what officials are saying but to acknowledge the uncertainty that’s involved in those numbers,” said Graves. 

At the same time, he said journalists should emphasize conclusions that are widely accepted.

The daily statistics shouldn’t drown out the bigger story — including the trajectory of the disease and basic health practices — which are “much simpler and much more important.”

“The important details we do understand quite well and those are actually more important than the latest stats,” he said.

Transparence in certainties in period of uncertainty

The unknown is particularly difficult in health communication because it complicates a key part of both health communication and health behavior — self-efficacy and response-efficacy — Christy said. 

Self-efficacy is the idea there is something one can do to achieve the outcome they want — in this case, not getting coronavirus. Response efficacy is the belief what one is doing will actually produce the desired outcome — will whatever action you take actually prevent you from contracting coronavirus?

Both self- and response-efficacy are low right now, Christy said, because people can’t always do what they’re being told to do — like stay home from work — and people are unsure what will actually effectively stop the spread.

“There’s not a lot that people can point to and say well this is what you can do and if you do this you will be safe,” she said. “There’s just a really high level of uncertainty right now.”

Journalists can play an important role by acknowledging this uncertainty and drawing the public’s focus on what is certain, Brossard said.

For example, it is certain there are knowledgeable experts working toward the vaccine, and in Wisconsin, Gov. Tony Evers and public health officials are providing care to the community.

“At the end of the day what’s important is — if it’s the case — that people know that there is a system that’s transparent, honest and takes care of them,” Brossard said.

People don’t like uncertainty and this can become especially hard when trust is on the line, Brossard said, pointing to the famous saying: “rust is hard to build but easy to destroy.”

In order to build trust, Christy explained a unified message could go a long way in avoiding confusion.

“Right now that’s kind of what’s not happening with the coronavirus. We have so many different channels saying very similar but not identical things,” she said.

Offering another angle

The media could be united in another way — by expanding its focus from the present to include the future. In this sense, the media can play a role in guiding our society through the crisis so we are in the best possible space for the “after-crisis,” Brossard said.

“It’s easy to just report on these updates every two mintues. It’s less easy to try to … help people navigate that constant flow of information,” she said. “Media has their role to play to help people try to feel in control.”

By covering all sides of the situation to show how communities address problems, adapt and help each other, the media can give people hope.

“This crisis may be longer than we like but we will get out of it together and the media has a role to tell that story as well,” Brossard said.

Graves agreed, and added that focusing on practical steps to take as individuals and a collective will not only moderate fear, but is the information that will be most useful for us as a society.

“This crisis is extremely important. This crisis is something that we need to have to think about and how to manage it best,” Brossard said. “But the crisis will pass and there will be after the crisis and we need to think about that [too].”

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