How to cover the novel coronavirus global outbreak

The world is not the same as it was in 2002 when SARS emerged. Social media platforms, including Twitter and Facebook, have allowed the rapid exchange of information — and sometimes misinformation. — From an article on The Conversation

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

ast week, I decided to skip my introduction to my communications subject Publishing and focus on the more important topic for the past weeks: the global outbreak of the 2019 novel coronavirus.

With news of increasing number of cases (and deaths) worldwide and its spread from Wuhan, China to other countries, including the Philippines where at least one death was reported, I was more concerned with the misinformation that was also spreading like a virus.

So-called fake stories about a bat soup being blamed for the source of the virus and other absurd news were being shared on social media at an alarming rate. This noise was drowning out more important information that was needed to be shared to a world in panic.

“ As a new form of coronavirus continues to infect a growing number of people around the world, medical professionals, scientists and big tech giants are fighting the spread of another contagion — misinformation,” Time wrote in a feature story that also told how the science community used the Internet to gather data that would help them understand the scale of this global problem.

Even the World Health Organization was dissuading the public of spreading misinformation and to take heed of “online rumors” about a patented cure or other fake ways to avoid being infected.

Amid all the chaos, Google, Facebook and Twitter launched efforts to contain the spread of misinformation through their own initiatives such as promoting links to the World Health Organization, local government health institutions, and useful tips on how to protect yourself from possible infection.

Top news organizations like New York Times and The Guardian also published charts, visualized data, and even made simple illustrations to help better explain the seriousness of this global health problem.

Sourced from the New York Times

Crystal Watson, senior researcher and assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, was among those who also saw how social media has fueled “some [misinformation] that is intentionally harmful.”

She said “either disseminating information about a false cure, for example, or spreading information that stigmatizes specific groups of people” have not been useful, and therefore encouraged media and even public health institutions to be on top of this issue and provide correct and accurate information.

How to cover public health issues

  1. Seek official sources. First rule in covering public health issues is to always seek information from official sources and experts who are well-versed about the public health issue you are covering. For the 2019 novel coronavirus, the number one source is the World Health Organization.
  2. Understand your terms. Be careful about using epidemiological terms that can be misconstrued. For example, what is the difference between an outbreak versus and an epidemic or even a pandemic? Here’s one simple definition about an outbreak: “An outbreak is the sudden occurrence of a disease in a community, which has never experienced the disease before or when cases of that disease occur in numbers greater than expected in a defined area.” Meanwhile, an epidemic is “an occurrence of a group of illnesses of similar nature and derived from a common source, in excess of what would be normally expected in a community or region.” What about a pandemic? “A pandemic…refers to a worldwide epidemic, which could have started off as outbreak, escalated to the level of an epidemic and eventually spread to a number of countries across continents.”
  3. Data matters but it is best when visualized. To give people a better picture of a pandemic, you have to help visualize the problem. This New York Times example is one of the clearest visualization of the pandemic.
Source: New York Times

4. Do your homework. Read up, validate your information, and get multiple sources to support your story. These are fundamental to reporting a public health issue. But go beyond what official sources are saying. See gaps in their own reports. Media reports are now saying that China which has a state-controlled media had downplayed the spread of the coronavirus, as the first case was detected as early as December 2019, but it was only two months later — when the infection spread around the world — did China admit that it was dealing with a serious public health issue. The Chinese doctor who first blew the whistle on this emerging unknown pathogen was reportedly silenced by state officials. He passed away recently, as he got infected too.

5. Explain a public health issue. Covering a public health issue requires research and a lot of explaining. So-called explainers provide answers beyond the “What, When, Who, Where, Why, and How” of news reporting. It tries to answer the “So What.” Explainers break down complicated topics into simple, comprehensible tidbits that are supported by graphs, interactive content, and illustrations.

With the developing stories about the 2019 nCov coming in every day, it is best to keep an eye on news coming from legit sources. Don’t rely on social media to keep you posted on developments.

About the author: He teaches about the digital media, journalism, and communications on weekends. He is now a marketer but still dealing with content that go out as ads.

An ex-journalist. Teacher. Dad. Loves Guitar & Books. Writes when inspiration hits him.

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