Covering Coronavirus Constructively
Recommendations for reporting on the coronavirus with the elements of constructive journalism in mind.
Just look at the two headlines above.
With journalism acting as a filter between reality and the public perception of reality journalists must ask themselves if they want to angle their coverage solely on the drama of news stories or instead address nuance, context and hope.
The time is now to show why journalism is essential to audiences, society and democracy. The coronavirus pandemic is a global call for responsible media.
Constructive journalism is a mindset which places the focus of journalism and public attention to out beyond the glare of global problems and looks to address potential solutions to the challenges facing us all.
Constructive journalism is an add on to the two major modes of news reporting: Breaking news and Investigative journalism.
It goes without saying that both breaking news and investigative reporting are essential for covering the pandemic of the coronavirus. In this grave international crisis they are absolutely necessary. These two modes of reporting use critical journalism in order to inform news audiences around the world and hold the people in power responsible for their actions, or lack of action.
In what way could the principles of constructive journalism offer additional elements to reporting on the coronavirus?
Constructive journalism is based on three pillars and here are some recommendations on how these principles could be used in covering the evolving pandemic.
Some of the recommendations may seem to be simply good, thorough, critical and balanced journalism but that is essentially what constructive journalism is all about.
Based on the Three Pillars
STORIES FROM PILLAR 1:
Focus on solutions
Report not only on the problems but also on possible solutions to these problems.
The problem is for a whole nation to try to prevent the corona virus from spreading. These stories from Forbes, New York Times and Washington Post ask whether countries like the US could learn from the experiences from other nations such as China and South Korea. Naturally any journalist would have to ask critical questions as what methods the countries mentioned in the articles have used to keep down the spread. But the stories contain suggestions to tackle a problem of uncontrolled spread of the coronavirus which others might use in their learning process.
At the beginning of the spread in Denmark it was a major problem that an increasing number of patients needed to be tested for coronavirus. Tests normally take place in a room inside a hospital. But this meant that the staff had to spend a lot of time and manpower cleaning the room after each test.
At Aarhus’ University Hospital they found a solution to the problem by establishing a drive-in system. The person who is to be tested arrives in his car to an open tent next to the hospital. A member of the staff walks to the car and performs a test whilst the patient remains in his vehicle. The patient drives off, the test is run through the laboratory, and the patient gets a phone call stating whether he was infected or not within 12 hours.
This method cut down the risk of spreading the infection inside the hospital, lessened the fears from people afraid to enter the hospital, and it saved time, staff’s working hours, and money. The story in this link is in Danish, but you easily get the idea of a solution watching the footage.
Link: TV2 Østjylland, 07.03.2020
This story shows how scientists are trying to determine the origin and the structure of the coronavirus in order to try to find a treatment. It not only describes the problem but also shows the effort to find a solution to the problem.
Link: Nature, 07.03.2020
A humanitarian solution to the loss of loved ones, addressing a problem that would have been unthinkable one month ago. 84-year old friar Aquilino of Bergamo Hospital in Italy helps families say goodbye their dead relatives. The relatives of the deceased cannot visit the hospital's chapel to pay their respects because of the country's curfew. Aquilino calls relatives on the phone whilst he is at the chapel and they pray together.
Link: Corriere Della Sera, 19.03.2020
Here is an attempt to report on business initiatives that are scalable – switching from producing shampoo to gel. Doing the right story on industry is a balance in order to ensure your journalism is not glorified PR. A tactic to avoid this trap is to ask competing producers "Why aren't you doing something similar?
Link: 20 Minutes, 19.03.2020
Coping with the confinement. This is an optimistic article which among other tips outlines initiatives adopted from Italy. It is inspirational and offers tangible tips for readers facing alarming changes to their lifestyles.
Link: Liberation, 19.03.2020
An explainer on the lessons learnt by Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea from the SARS outbreak and how these have been used to fight the coronavirus. The article demonstrates the value of detailed information, testing and fast decision making. These tools are offered in contrast to China's "draconian" approach of mass quarantine.
Link: Süddeutsche Zeiting, 16.03.2020
A guide to successful homeschooling for parents taking on the new role of teacher.
A story of hope and human resilience. A hospital in the northern part of Norway desperately in need of personnel has been supported by local volunteers.
Link: NRK, 16.03.2020
Due to the curfew families have to stay at home and being confined to the apartment or house can be frustrating. This story offers suggestions for families as to how they can make the most of being constantly together at home.
Link: Aftenposten.no, 17.03.2020
A calm and factual text that uses credible sources in order to relay facts about what we know – and importantly what we don’t know - about the virus and how it spreads. Fox News chose to keep this particular story at the very top of their page for a long time – giving it priority over breaking news items and more political content.
Link: Fox News, 17.03.2020
STORIES FROM PILLAR 2:
1. Balance and nuance your reporting. Do tell the necessary stories of the severe problems but also tell the stories about progress, if it is there.
The Danish media reported thoroughly on the first Danish person who became infected with the coronavirus . He was an editor of the Danish media, TV2, who had been on a vacation in Italy.
One week later the tv-station also did the story of his recovery when he – stating that he had not really felt very ill – returned to his family.
This story showed the fact that although the elderly, the sick and the weakened people risk dying from the coronavirus, the vast majority of the people who are infected with the virus,have a full recovery.
The story is in Danish, it is quite obvious from the footage that this is a man who is no longer ill.
Watch the clip at the bottom “Forenet med familien”.
Link: TV2, 05.03.2020
This story offers Guardian readers answers for the question they have all be asking, namely when a vaccine could be ready. The article is nuanced, full of information and gives a wider perspective on the current situation.
Link: The Guardian, 20.03.2020
This journalistic project aims to give both a factual and nuanced picture of the development of the coronacrisis and simultaneously reaches out to the readers in order to answer the questions that are the most crucial to people as the disease develops.
The Guardian, continuous.
This story offers nuances. Naturally media should cover the things that are going in the wrong direction such as the rising number of infected people, volume of patients in intensive care and victims who have died from the virus. However as this German news organisation notes “There are also reports that give reason for hope and confidence.” These reports note 5 of these developments from the high rate or recovery from the coronavirus to beneficial impacts restricted travel is having on the environment.
Link: Galileo, 16.03.2020
2. Make sure to use the right sources, i.e. experts who know what they are talking about.
When the gravity of the spread became apparent and people still knew very little of coronavirus, TV2 Danmark gathered three medical experts and asked them questions about how to avoid the spread of the virus. These people were a chief physician of infectious diseases of a large hospital, a general practitioner who is also chairman of Danish College of General Practitioners, and a chief physician of Danish Health Authority.
In other words: Always go for the people who know what they are talking about. Don’t settle for less.
With the help of credible medical experts and some down to earth, and often funny quotes, this article gives us guidance on things like home made hand sanitizer, garlic as a possible cure, Vitamin C as virus protection and the idea of trying to flush the virus through your system by drinking plenty of water. It ends with an easy guide to what you can do and a flicker of hope.
Link: Huff Post, 14.03.2020
3. Don’t fall into the pitfall of asking people who are famous for something totally different and who know nothing about coronavirus.
Liverpool Football Club’s manager, Jürgen Klopp, was asked by a sports reporter at a press conference about a football match, how he looked at the risk of coronavirus in football. Klopp gave a very straightforward answer stating that it made no sense whatsoever to ask a question like that to football manager with “a cap and a bad shave”.
4. Consider how much reporting you should do.
It goes without saying that in the current, severe crisis, a lot of reporting is extremely necessary.
But the emphasis should be on quality rather than quantity. Prioritize facts over feelings. Ask yourself if the particular angle you have in mind is necessary and actually has value for your audiences.
The United Nations health organization, WHO, sent out this appeal to news media in the beginning of March:
“To members of the media: Yours is a critical role. This is the time for accurate reporting from official sources. Your role in an outbreak is not simply to chase the story; it is to perform a public service. Your actions are public health actions in every respect. You play a significant part in protecting the health and well-being of your fellow citizens.”
This corresponds with the advice that WHO sent out to the citizens:
“Minimize watching, reading or listening to news that causes you to feel anxious or distressed; seek information only from trusted sources and mainly to take practical steps to prepare your plans and protect yourself and loved ones. Seek information updates at specific times during the day, once or twice. The sudden and near-constant stream of news reports about an outbreak can cause anyone to feel worried. Get the facts; not the rumors and misinformation. Gather information at regular intervals, from WHO website and local health authorities’ platforms, in order to help you distinguish facts from rumors. Facts can help to minimize fears.”
5. Make sure that the case you use is representative of a documented development and not a unique and extraordinary example.
6. Pick your pictures with caution
It is self-evident that a picture can tell a whole story. But what story should we tell when the pictures can tell all kinds of stories, ranging from gloomy scary pictures of people wearing white face masks to images showing people taking precautions by washing hands? Consider what signals you want to send.
What picture would you select from the simple Google-search below in order to illustrate the virus? A dramatic one or a neutral one?
7. Mind your language
Be calm in your tone. If you exaggerate with your words and phrases you might exaggerate the state of fear that you leave people with. Consider this: What good does it do?
Do you want to leave the readers in fear as is the case with these Australian stories?
Daily Telegraph: "China Kids Stay Home"
Daily Telegraph: "Virus Death Plans"
Herald Sun: "Virus Doctor Shock"
Daily Telegraph: "Sydney's Virus Hell"
8. Put your reporting into perspective
The reporter should naturally always strive to put the single story into perspective, both internationally, historically, and comparatively. This is particularly important with a disease that can be fatal to some. Ask the questions: How can we compare this disease to previous pandemics?
Why do different countries apply different strategies? Why do different countries have relatively different numbers of infected citizens and mortality rates?
This article zooms out to the macro view of the crisis and it's global economic impact. Using a historical perspective the journalist describes the three big financial crashes of the last 100 years and tries to identify some learning points. These previous events may offer offer insights into what the corona crisis will mean for the world's stock markets.
Link: Die Welt, 15.03.2020
9. Try to learn more and embrace complexity
It goes without saying that a reporter should strive to have an in-depth understanding about the subject that he is reporting on. However, the time pressure in newsrooms often challenges this ideal.
Particularly in this case, where the accuracy of the reporting is crucial to the level of fear and anxiety which the audiences will be left with, it is imperative that the reporter tries harder than ever to learn about the complex epidemic, medical and physical elements of the spread of the corona virus.
There was a story out in week 10 based on a press conference at WHO. It was about the mortality rate of the coronavirus.
Some media reported that the mortality-rate was estimated to be 3,4 per cent of all persons with corona infection.
The fact is that the mortality rate was estimated to be 3,4 per cent of all confirmed cases of the coronavirus.
There is a difference.
According to Danish health authorities the mortality rate of al lcorona infected persons is estimated to be between 0,3 and 1,0 per cent.
Reporters should take extraordinarily care to get the figures and the definitions right, as the current situation is so severe.
Here is a story from the largest Danish newspaper, Politiken, that strives to explain how the mortality rate is to be understood.
Link: Politiken, 05.03.2020
10. Base your journalism on facts and be particularly aware that facts may change every day.
Naturally, any story must be based on facts. However, in this case the facts are rapidly changing as numbers shift by the hour. Get it right. Every time. Try to find the facts that are essential and easy to understand.
This figure shows people what the difference is between the government taking steps to prevent the spread of corona virus compared not to. And with the crucial steady line:
The resources of the health system.
A basic myth killer story focused on rumours and misinformation both on legacy media and social platforms. Using WHO's scientific analysis the journalist separates fact from fiction.
Link: Quotidiano, 16.03.2020
Putting the coronavirus into perspective through the macro lens of history and philosophy. This blog sums up using the word of historian of ideas and social theorist Michel Foucault.
Link: Affordance, 04.03.2020
Big social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and TikTok are making an effort to promote factual content and remove false and misleading stories from their platforms. Some of the work is done in collaboration with authorities such as CDC and WHO. This article contains examples and important critical questions about the continued flaws of their misinformation policing.
Link: Vox/Recode, 03.03.2020
STORIES FROM PILLAR 3:
Promote Democratic Conversation
1. Involve and engage people
A Danish tv-station set up a 30-minute show called “Ask about corona” on several consecutive nights, asking medical experts to answer people’s questions on coronavirus.
The station invited the viewers to send in their questions via an email or text message.
The anchor of the show then delivered the questions to a panel of medical experts, whist the questions were displayed to audiences on the tv-screen.
In this way, ordinary people’s ordinary – and extraordinary – questions were being taken seriously.
Any news organization could do this. The role of the press becomes important in conveying real answers to real questions, instead of leaving the it all to the hearsay of social media.
Swedish TV (SVT) has in part used the same method of engaging people in a special program about the coronavirus.
Link: SVT, 10.03.2020
2. Use different platforms to reach out to people
Find ways to communicate to different target groups. Consider working together with actors, musicians, and influencers in order to spread pieces of advice and useful information.
In order to make children and young people in Vietnam understand the seriousness of the coronavirus and the way to fight the spread, this video was made.
Link: Euronews, 06.03.2020
In the left column of its front page SF Chronicle runs an easily accessible list of FAQ’s about open/closed shops and schools, food and virus, public transit, going to the doctor, financial help for businesses, concerns for older people and then all the basic facts about the virus. Much of the material is the newspaper’s own compilations, but they also quote expert sources and link to official resources.
Link: San Francisco Chronicle, continuous
3. Getting audiences answers to their questions
As soon as the prime minister of Denmark basically closed down the country on March 12th, the management of the regional tv-station TV2 Fyn divided the staff in two. One half should work with tv. The other should find answers from experts to the questions that viewers handed in to the tv-station through the online tool, Hearken.
Editorial director, Lasse Hørbye Nielsen, calls it “people service”:
“As head of the project I have never felt my work as a journalist making more sense than right now.”
See examples of questions and answers here:
Link: TV2 Fyn, 16.03.2020
An explainer on what to do - and what not to do. Questions and answers are covered, explaining what the rules are and what behaviours will slow down the epidemic. It is a down to earth solution oriented article addressing every day practices that concern readers.
Link: Metronews, 11.03.2020
Getting closer to the people. Italian video-journals. Italians share their experiences of quarantine at home via homemade videos. It gives a better understanding of how the society is dealing with the crisis on an intimate and individual level.
Link: Corriere Della Sera, continuous
Get it right by answering questions from your audience. Here is an alternative to a Q and A list. The journalists has gone in depth with a single question from a reader and has addressed their concerns through the entire article.
Link: Liberation, 19.03.2020
The New York Times set up a special page on its web with updates, explanations and a dedicated column (to the right of the front page) that answers readers question about the coronavirus.
Link: New York Times, continuous
Another example – this time from Sweden. The news outlet Swedish Television (SVT) invites viewers to send in their questions and have experts in the news room answer them.
Based on questions from readers (there is an interactive tool for questions at the bottom) the New York Times gets help from doctors, public officials and other experts to answer many of the questions parents have about public playgrounds, visiting grandparents, general hygiene, birthday parties, testing, homemade hand sanitizer and more.
Link: New York Times, continuous
Constructive journalism is an add on to breaking news and investigative news.
We need to remember the purpose of journalism:
To contribute to society through critical and constructive journalism.
Please share your constructive stories with us by sending them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the words of one of the leading Danish health reporters, Lars Igum Rasmussen, of Denmark’s largest newspaper, Politiken, in a mail to all of his colleagues on the 11thof March:
“Critical questions are necessary, but our angling and reporting is essential. We should inform, clarify, explain – and yes, be critical - if there is a real reason for it. We shall not exaggerate or downplay a potential epidemic. We should report neutrally, but we are in a quite unique situation that also demands other approaches than we are used to.”
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C/O Aarhus University
Bartholins Allé 16
Bygning 1328, 1. sal
8000 Aarhus C
+45 601 38 600