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Tips for reporting on Covid-19 and slowing the spread of misinformation

As the world looks for timely, accurate news about the novel coronavirus, how can journalists best provide their audiences the information they need?

by Victoria Kwan, Claire Wardle and Madelyn Webb.

This article is part of a series on health misinformation.

Reporting on Covid-19 presents multiple challenges for journalists. Reporters have the responsibility of providing readers with up-to-date information — no easy task amidst the ongoing uncertainty around the virus — in a tone that neither terrifies people nor downplays the severity of the situation. Amplifying misinformation is a concern, but so is amplifying fear. 

Here are First Draft’s tips for responsible reporting on Covid-19. They are informed by our interviews with health and science reporters, health professionals and journalism professors, our existing training materials, and several excellent coronavirus reporting guides listed at the end of this article.

Avoid using sensationalist language

Emotional phrases such as “no end in sight”, “turmoil”, “killer” and “catastrophe” might draw clicks, but they can also contribute to a sense of growing panic, which health officials, epidemiologists and virologists warn is exactly the opposite of the calm that is needed.

Journalists have to recognise “both the nature of the threat and their responsibility to manage the emotions of the audiences, and not unduly spread fear,” says Professor Karin Wahl-Jorgensen of Cardiff University, who studies the use of emotions in journalism and has been tracking coverage of the novel coronavirus in major English-language newspapers. 

Be mindful about imagery

Think carefully about any photos or images and provide context. Try to steer clear of stock images that feed stereotypes. Before using a photo of an Asian person wearing a face mask, for example, ask how this image is relevant to your story. Are the subjects of your story Asian? Is your story about the efficacy of face masks in preventing the spread of the virus? The Asian American Journalists Association has issued helpful guidance on avoiding fuelling xenophobia and racism in Covid-19 reporting. 

The same goes for images that could cause undue panic. Would your use of an image of people wearing hazmat suits cause readers alarm? Are you using an image of an ambulance with an empty trolley waiting to enter a house? Think about the impact of header images when concerns are rising about the impact of the virus.

Avoid speculating or asking experts to speculate about worst-case scenarios

Similarly, encouraging experts or sources to give speculative or sensational quotes does not always help readers. “We should focus on what we do know,” Wahl-Jorgensen advises. Newsrooms should also be upfront about what they don’t know. 

Provide readers with specific actions they can take

University of Minnesota journalism professor Emily Vraga notes that uncertainty makes us uncomfortable, which in turn makes us more vulnerable to confident-sounding misinformation. She recommends highlighting expert-approved actions to prevent the spread of the virus. “Concrete steps related to coronavirus specifically can be quite helpful because it gives people a sense of control.” 

Direct readers to official sources of information

Expert sources like the World Health Organisation will have the best information for audiences. Build up reader confidence in health organisations and health professionals (after you have verified their trustworthiness), so your audience knows who to turn to for future recommendations.

Be cautious about the research used to inform your reporting

As science journalist Roxanne Khamsi pointed out to First Draft (and Reuters highlighted in a recent article), there has been a proliferation of pre-prints on Covid-19 since the outbreak began — pre-prints being scientific papers that have not yet been peer reviewed. While some pre-prints can provide useful information on the latest research, some promote spurious claims that should not be amplified.

If using pre-prints to inform your reporting, Khamsi recommends asking an independent scientist before publication: does this paper check out? “You can’t replicate the journal review process, but it is a safeguard to have an independent expert check it.”

Talk to more than one expert

Base your reporting on more than what one official says, Khamsi advises. “Look to the landscape. Different virologists have different pieces of the puzzle. Be wary of anyone who claims they have the whole picture.” 

Think about the tipping point when deciding which rumours to address

Avoid drawing attention to rumours if they are circulating only in niche communities or have received little engagement. Here are five questions for determining whether a rumour has reached the tipping point: 

  • 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? 

If you do decide to debunk a rumour, focus on the facts, particularly in headlines and tweets

Our earlier training materials advised that journalists can slow down amplification of rumours by not using language from the rumour in their headlines. We’re now refining these ideas — newsrooms should tailor their headlines for different platforms, drawing a distinction between headlines that audiences see on social media and headlines that appear when audiences look for information on search engines. 

For headlines that audiences will likely stumble upon in an algorithmic feed, like on Twitter or Facebook, consider that they may not have seen or heard about the rumour already. The goal is to avoid amplifying the rumour. Reporters don’t want to accidentally misinform these readers if they only read the headline, so avoid repeating a rumour unnecessarily while correcting it. 

However, for headlines found via search engine, such as Google, Bing or even YouTube, the fact that readers searched specific keywords means they have already heard of the rumour. Amplification is less of a concern in this case. Rather, the goal is reaching the readers who are searching for the rumour before misinformation purveyors and fear-mongerers. Including keywords from the rumour in your headline may help these readers quickly locate your content, making them less likely to fall into a data void of misinformation (see our section on data voids below). 

Headlines are key because even if the body of the text includes a careful explanation of why the rumour is false, many people don’t read further than the headline or tweet.

If you have space in the body of your debunk, consider linguist George Lakoff’s “truth sandwich” technique: Start with the truth, indicate the lie (without using the specific language of the lie), and then return to the truth. As Briony Swire-Thompson and Ullrich Ecker from the University of Western Australia’s School of Psychology write, stating the lie before noting its falsity “can boost familiarity of the misconception, potentially increasing the risk that misconceptions are later mistakenly remembered as being true.”

Make your content easy to process

Keep it simple and short. Use graphics to illustrate your points, and make sure that the truth is easier to read (by putting it in a bigger or bolder font, for example) than the rumour. Avoid listing all the myths. Our brains struggle to make sense of what is true and false, particularly when we’re scrolling at speed. Find engaging, simple ways to focus on the facts and to give concrete advice about steps people can take.

Avoid ridicule or derogatory language

People’s fears about the virus are genuine, even if some of the theories are misguided. A false cure may seem irrational, but calling it “bizarre” or “outlandish” might alienate readers or cause them to double down on their beliefs. Anxiety is a very normal reaction in uncertain situations, which journalists can better address with empathy rather than judgment. 

Figure out what Covid-19 questions readers are asking, and fill data voids with service journalism

Michael Golebiewski of Microsoft devised the term “data void” to describe search queries where “the available relevant data is limited, non-existent, or deeply problematic.”

In breaking news situations, write Golebiewski and danah boyd (of Microsoft Research and Data & Society), readers run into data voids when “a wave of new searches that have not been previously conducted appears, as people use names, hashtags, or other pieces of information” to find answers. Newsrooms should think about Covid-19 questions or keywords readers are likely searching for, look to see who is creating content around these questions, and fill data voids with quality content. 

For example, below is a screenshot of the Google results page for the query “can I catch coronavirus from packages”. Readers searching for the answer will find some news stories about the US Senate’s coronavirus emergency spending, which is presumably not what they are looking for.

But Harvard University and The Washington Post are helping fill the void around this rumour (and successfully using search engine optimisation) with explainers which includes the keywords “coronavirus”, “package” and “China”. These words are directly in the headline for the Post. This is an example where mentioning the rumour in the headline helps audiences find quality content that addresses their question.

Design carefully

As with your headline and copy, your visualisations should be accurate and avoid stoking fear. We recommend reading Kenneth Field’s ArcGSI blog post about mapping coronavirus responsibly and First Draft’s recent article on misleading maps

Here are five examples of headlines that use careful language

The Seattle Times: Facts about novel coronavirus and how to prevent COVID-19
This headline gets straight to the point without editorialising, and avoids stoking fear while still educating the audience on what to look out for.

The Atlantic: What You Can Do Right Now About the Coronavirus
This compilation of easily digestible tips is accompanied by a headline that is clear, precise and non-sensationalist.

The Jakarta Post: How to best wash your hands to stop the spread of coronavirus
This is an example of providing your readership with simple, concrete steps they can take to help protect themselves and their communities.

LA Daily News: Stockpiling toilet paper due to coronavirus? Be prepared but don’t hoard, says LA health director
The LA Daily News warns readers against panic buying without making fun of the behavior or the fear underlying it. It also points readers to an official health authority.

CNN: 10 lessons from Asia on how to live with a coronavirus outbreak
This headline works to mitigate readers’ anxieties, while also subtly pushing back against the anti-Asian sentiment exacerbated by outlets blaming China for the virus.

Additional resources for responsible reporting on Covid-19

Diara J. Townes and Keenan Chen contributed to this report.  

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