COVID-19. People have been asking me what I think about the reporting and all the health communication.
Simply put, I feel it’s best to follow the advice of global health experts and trust quality sources. Unfollow anyone who is making you feel anxious, and don’t read the news constantly.
There is so much alarmist content out there – from articles about stockpiling toilet paper to speculation on worst-case scenarios and death rates.
That said, I agree that the fundamentals of best-practice health communication apply now more than ever.
In a nutshell, if you are writing about COVID-19 – or any public health issue – the best-practices suggest you should:
- Focus on facts and evidence-based reporting – what we know, not what we think might happen
- Avoid fear-mongering, and avoid encouraging irresponsible actions – in the case of COVID-19, it could be considered irresponsible to tell communities to stockpile now unless there has been official advice to do so
- Tell stories that need to be told – don’t contribute to mass hysteria with irrelevant information
- Don’t write alarmist headlines or use language that freaks everyone out – like the classic: “Here’s why you should be worried about the deadly coronavirus” 🤯
- Avoid the pressure to write something for the sake of it – slow down, and remember that you don’t always have to have a voice among the noise
- Talk to experts – consult with people who work in a relevant field
- Remain objective – you don’t need to have an opinion on the future
- Consult a range of quality sources – different experts know about different topics
- Follow WHO’s advice – read their dedicated coronavirus page
- Remember that new information is not necessarily true information – in many cases, the newer info hasn’t been verified yet
- Understand statistics – use them sparingly and responsibly
- Write useful content that is helpful – consider your reader’s needs
- Refer to quality, reliable sources – always question your information, and think before you share
- Educate people in the process – explain the reasons why we don’t have answers yet.
Here are some other useful articles about responsible reporting:
- This Scientific American article on responsible reporting of coronavirus
- A practical guide on how to report on a pandemic (from the 2009 swine flu era, but still relevant)
- The HealthNewsReview toolkit for health journalists
COVID-19 is a health communication challenge for public health experts. As health writers, we are public health advocates. Our readers act on the advice we give, and the words we write, so we are obligated to write socially responsible health content. If you have the opportunity to write about COVID-19, hopefully you can incorporate these best-practices and help your readers avoid unnecessary panic and confusion.