The evolving story of coronavirus and the media

by Makara |

A couple of weeks’ ago, if someone had said the word “corona” you’d probably be thinking about that free-living summer beverage while you struggle through Dry January. Now, almost everyone exposed to the news will associate it with the SARS-like virus that started in Wuhan, China. In just 12 days, the number of confirmed cases has increased from 60 to nearly 10,000, and deaths have risen from 2 to 213. The media is updating us daily, giving higher figures and increases in the number of countries affected with each day.

It’s interesting to see how the media reports on something that’s evolving so quickly over time, when even the World Health Organization hasn’t known the full scale of the problem. Language has been fairly standard for this type of story, with phrases like “deadly”, “death toll surges” and “evacuations”. Seems quite strong for something that’s in the same viral family as the common cold.

We’ve seen this before, with the 2003 SARS outbreak and the 2009 Swine Flu pandemic – but in 2020, daily news just isn’t enough. It’s assumed we want minute-by-minute updates: new figures, ‘has it hit the UK?’, ‘have they stopped flights from China?’ – especially with many flocking to Twitter to consume the news as it happens.

Public Health England has been publishing updates every day at 2pm and, in contrast, its communication is pragmatic and reassuring, despite containing increasingly alarming figures and outlining tighter measures being taken by the UK government.

Health comms professionals are only too aware that unless a story is shocking, tapping into our emotions and vulnerabilities in a big way, it’s less likely to see the light of day. As a result, important stories about diseases that impact fewer readers or have a lower profile are unlikely to be of interest to national media. When the Ebola virus first hit, the national media were alive with fear because it had the potential for mass devastation – we thought it might be airborne at one point. As soon as it was under control and only affecting certain developing countries, the papers went quiet. Last year, a life-saving vaccine was approved – but the national media had moved on.

The media are only reporting what is deemed to be in the biggest public interest – but is it time we started questioning what that is? What if some readers would welcome a less generalist, less sensational approach to breaking news? The constant barrage of round-the-clock updates can certainly feel overwhelming.

One of the most worrying properties of the coronavirus is its 14-day incubation period, during which there are no symptoms. It will therefore be interesting to see how the story evolves further over the next few weeks. It seems inevitable that we’ll be faced with the “first UK case of coronavirus” stories that hit the papers, and the close monitoring of its travels will continue. Much is still unknown, and it’s a waiting game for reassurance and appropriate action. If you’re worried, try not to drink in the alarmist language too much, don’t forget about Public Health England and its useful updates and, if in doubt, keep washing your hands!