Reporting on the ongoing spread of covid-19 has put growing pressure on newsrooms and, with huge demand from the public to find out the latest information and advice, accurate and up-to-the-minute coverage is more important than ever.
However, as freelance health reporter and editor of VaccinesToday Gary Finnegan explained, coverage of the coronavirus comes with significant challenges, from the complexities of epidemiology to widespread circulation of false stories about the virus.
Finnegan shares his advice for overcoming the hurdles that reporting on the outbreak can bring.
Continuing scrutiny of authority
Although a lot of focus is on journalists' ability to accurately inform the public, this does not mean that reporters should shy away from holding governments to account for the measures they are imposing.
"The tendency is just to take what we’re given as gospel because policymakers say we’re following the science and that can feel a bit inaccessible to a lot of us.
"But when the science is so uncertain and when the policy responses are different from one country to the next, we definitely have a responsibility to scrutinise those."
Making complicated terminology understandable
The pandemic has brought constant updates from across the world, as well as medical jargon. The public may find these difficult to understand, so it is up to reporters to help audiences make sense of the complexity.
One way to do this, Finnegan said, is through data visualisation, given that audiences are already attuned to visual representations of information.
He highlighted outlets that have helped explain how viruses spread through animation as good examples to replicate in helping the wider public understand the nuances of the epidemic.
Debunking false claims
With any disaster or major event comes widespread misinformation and covid-19 has been no exception. Finnegan said that lessons can be learned from how myths about the effectiveness of vaccines were debunked in tackling their spread.
"There’s a lot of research showing that if you try to debunk a myth, it can backfire and you can just reinforce the myth. If you tell someone that vaccines don’t cause autism, it can remind them that there was a question mark about vaccines and autism."
He added that coverage should state upfront that the claim you are debunking is false, as it reduces the impact of the myth, and that you should replace the gap the fact-check leaves with correct information.
"If you say vaccines don’t give you the flu, you can leave someone with a gap and they might find some other way to fill it themselves."
Preventing mistakes in coverage
A lot of reporters whose regular beat is not health-related have increasingly found themselves covering the pandemic, as its impact ripples through everyday life.
Given the greater weight of responsibility on journalists during this global crisis, Finnegan advised reporters to be proactive in learning the basics about the virus and suggested that health and science correspondents in newsrooms create teams and take more of a role in editing and proofreading content.
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