OPINION

Journalistic challenges in reporting COVID-19

On March 11, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) characterised COVID-19 as a pandemic. He said: “Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly. It is a word that, if misused, can cause unreasonable fear, or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over, leading to unnecessary suffering and death.” What are the lessons that this important declaration holds for journalism? How can journalists arrive at a tone and tenor in reporting the health crisis that neither creates unwarranted panic nor underplays the gravity of the situation?

I have been closely monitoring every report on the spread of the virus and its aftermath in this newspaper over the past three weeks. In my opinion, the language used in explainers and reports seems to work well in informing readers without generating anxiety. The explainers on March 15 — “Is the global economy headed for recession?” and “How does soap use help in tackling COVID-19?” — were carried along with news reports on the spread of the virus.

Tools to evaluate reports

The idea of this column is not to praise The Hindu ’s coverage, but to seek feedback on what aspects of its reports worked, what aspects need improvement, and where the paper failed to meet the journalistic standards that I spoke of in my column, “Journalism in the time of an epidemic” (February 10). For the benefit of the readers, I would like to share some of the tools that I use to evaluate reporting on this pandemic, which started as an epidemic.

I draw extensively from New York-based First Draft’s study and tools on health misinformation. They have come up with multiple tips for reporting on COVID-19 and slowing the spread of misinformation. I follow the guidelines issued by WHO, exchange notes with fellow news ombudsmen across platforms and countries, and also try to list some of the best practices across the globe.

First Draft’s prescription for good reporting expects journalists to avoid using sensationalist language. It points out that emotional phrases such as “no end in sight”, “turmoil”, “killer” and “catastrophe” might draw clicks, but they can also lead to panic, which experts warn is the opposite of the calm that we need at a time like this. In his interview to First Draft, Karin Wahl-Jorgensen of Cardiff University, who has studied the use of emotions in journalism, said that journalists should recognise “both the nature of the threat and their responsibility to manage the emotions of the audiences, and not unduly spread fear.” The other important recommendations are: avoid speculating or asking experts to speculate about worst-case scenarios and provide readers with specific actions that they can take.

Roxanne Khamsi’s article in First Draft and an extensive report in Reuters point out the problems related to the proliferation of preprints on COVID-19 since the outbreak began. They say that these preprints are yet to be peer-reviewed and should therefore be approached with a great deal of caution. The Reuters fact sheet points out that out of the 153 studies published on COVID-19, 92 were not peer-reviewed.

Preventing the spread of rumours

First Draft asks media organisations to avoid drawing attention to rumours if they are circulating only in niche communities or have received little engagement. First Draft uses a five-question test to check whether a rumour has reached the tipping point. These questions apply to the Indian mainstream media too. They are: “How much engagement has the rumour received, and how do these numbers compare to similar content on the platform? Is the discussion around the rumour limited to one community online? Has the rumour jumped platforms? Did an influencer or verified account share the rumour? Have large media outlets covered the rumour?”

I also draw from an essay by Bill Hanage and Marc Lipsitch, professors of epidemiology at Harvard University, in Scientific American, titled “How to Report on the COVID-19 Outbreak Responsibly”. They write: “Good reporting and science have to distinguish legitimate sources of information from no end of rumors, half-truths, financially motivated promotions of snake-oil remedies and politically motivated propaganda.”

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in