What does responsible coronavirus coverage look like?

Published 6:40 pm Thursday, March 5, 2020

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As COVID-19, AKA the novel coronavirus, has found a dominant spot in the 24-hour news cycle in the past month, fear and a sense of panic have naturally followed. As with any serious news story, journalists must determine the right amount of coverage based on how important the story is to their viewers and readers.

Report too little, and the public might not have the tools and knowledge needed to remain informed on the issue. Report too much, and it contributes to the type of panic that has wiped out the hand sanitizer and facemask stocks at retailers throughout the country. As such, journalists must try to find the “Goldilocks zone” of giving adequate information without inciting unnecessary panic.

“I don’t know of any journalist who sets out to scare people, but reporters may unintentionally alarm their audiences with shoddy coverage of a virus that’s entered a frenzied news cycle that may lead to panic and ineffective overreaction.

“It’s time we start thinking carefully about the headlines and images we use to cover this story. Context is critical, and there are important local stories to be told that don’t emphasize the virus’ doom and gloom.”

These words were written by journalist Al Tompkins, not this year, but in 2016, when the Zika virus was the big new scare. He recently revived them in an article focusing on the media’s coverage of COVID-19 appearing on Poynter, a site dedicated to helping reporters better cover their communities and the issues that matter to readers and viewers.

In that article, Tompkins encourages reporters to make sure their stories about COVID-19 have context, and to avoid adjectives like “deadly,” “horrific” and “catastrophic.” He further charges journalists with taking the time to bust myths about the virus, finding the facts rather than playing into the hype.

As for Beaufort County, the Washington Daily News has so far run two stories on COVID-19, both based on information directly provided by local health officials. Like those health officials, this newspaper is keeping an eye on the spread of the virus, specifically with the safety of local residents in mind.

Like the folks at the Beaufort County Health Department, The Daily News encourages our readers to remain calm about the virus. Do the simple things that you would normally do to protect yourself from disease:

  • wash your hands and fingers tips with soap and water for 20 seconds;
  • cough into your sleeve;
  • avoid touching your face;
  • stay home if sick;
  • monitor the CDC and North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services websites for the latest news and information.

For now, it’s best to leave the worrying to the professionals. You can rest assured, the second anything to do with COVID-19 impacts Beaufort County, our local health department and hospital will be on it, and the Washington Daily News will be right there with them, offering helpful, informed, factual information on what to do next.

Tompkin’s article can be viewed at www.poynter.org/reporting-editing/2020/how-newsrooms-can-tone-down-their-coronavirus-coverage-while-still-reporting-responsibly.