The handwringing over the spread of COVID-19 virus or “coronavirus” has ratcheted up in recent days, with cities like San Francisco declaring a health emergency.
The stock market has been volatile as traders try to assess the disruption to global trade. Leaders in government have struggled to convince the world that everything is under control. Vice President Mike Pence has been tapped to head up the response to COVID-19 in the U.S., but global cases continue to climb.
However, the fears around the disease might be creating a media narrative that is doing more harm than good.
Trey Watkins, senior vice president of global health and corporate responsibility for GCI Health, explains that the anxiety driving much of the current news coverage isn’t helping.
“There’s no doubt that we live in a time where sensationalism clearly sells,” he says. “It captures headlines; it captures imagination.”
He warns that this is particularly problematic for fighting misinformation and panic.
“There are two driving forces of misinformation,” he says. “On one hand, we see misinformation perpetuated when we are in the absence of information. On the other, misinformation prevails when there is a lack of trusted information from a source that is considered reliable.”
Watkins says that communicators looking to address the COVID-19 virus, or a similar health scare should “lead with honesty” and “ensure that they’re providing context.”
“I think we have to remember that the large majority of the world’s population are not infectious disease experts,” he says.
On low-engagement audiences
One troubling sign for communicators ahead of the coronavirus crisis has been the decline of trust in government and nongovernmental organizations. Particularly striking have been the drops in trust for low-information, less-engaged audiences. As reported in Edelman’s 2020 Trust Barometer, people who don’t follow the news as closely, or with lower educational levels, are much less likely to trust messages from health care communicators.
Watkins says that, as with any other audience, it’s important to meet these demographics where they are.
“We need to look for opportunities to engage them,” he says. “And that requires really understanding that audience, understanding where and how they’re engaging—or why they’re not engaging.”