Update: It’s been one year since COVID-19 changed our lives forever, and the fundamentals of best-practice health communication have never been more relevant.
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 – watch your language
- Don’t encourage irresponsible actions – for example, it could be considered irresponsible to tell communities to stockpile unless there has been official advice to do so
- Tell stories that need to be told – don’t contribute to hysteria with irrelevant information
- Don’t write alarmist headlines or encourage fear – like the classic: “Here’s why you should be worried …”
- Avoid the pressure to write and share 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 and share their opinions
- 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, wants, fears and questions
- Refer to quality, reliable sources – always question your information, and think before you share
- Educate people in the writing process – for example, explain the reasons why we don’t have answers yet.
When you’re creating or sharing health content, ask yourself these questions:
- Is it helpful?
- Is it useful?
- Is it socially responsible?
- Does this story need to be told?
- Have I put myself in my readers’ shoes and considered their needs, wants, fears and questions?
- What is the point?
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 an ongoing health communication challenge for public health experts. You already know what a health writer does, but remember that we are also public health advocates. Our readers act on the advice we give and the words we write. So we need to write socially responsible health content. You can develop your writing skills with daily writing exercises or take one of our health writing courses.
I hope you found this post helpful. By incorporating these best practices, you can help your readers avoid unnecessary confusion and panic.