Covering Coronavirus: Tips, best practices and programs

Risk scientist explains how journalists can help communities make fact-based decisions

Journalists are covering every aspect of the coronavirus outbreak and impact, including whether people are staying in, going out, and generally taking the precautions that health officials and their local and state governments are recommending. But how do we explain those choices and increase the likelihood that the information we provide helps keep people safe. We asked Dr. Sweta Chakraborty, a Risk and Behavioral Scientist and member of EcoHealth Alliance’s Leadership Council. 

How can journalists help close the gap between the perception of risk & actual risk with this pandemic?

Chakraborty: It is essential for journalists to understand how the public perceives risk. The perception of a risk is rarely aligned to the reality of a risk, and that is unequivocally true for COVID-19. Factors that contribute to public perceptions of risk include whether the risk is new, familiar, impacting vulnerable populations, potentially endemic, likely to cause catastrophic damage, and many more. COVID-19 ticks all these boxes; it is new, unfamiliar, involuntary, potentially endemic, and impacting the elderly. For this reason, greater frequency and probability will be attributed to the risk despite any facts or reporting saying otherwise. We are universally wired this way.

For this reason it is critical for journalists to stay on top of the facts coming from credible, trusted sources like the CDC, WHO, and individuals like Tony Fauci. It’s essential to simplify the data, but the risk of oversimplifying can result in inaccurate communications or inaccurate interpretations of the reporting. Appropriate simplification that really translates “expert speak” is essential for journalists.

Information can be simplified when it is delivered in little bits at a time and originating from trusted sources. Journalists do not necessarily like repeating information, but key issues and takeaways must be repeated to really take hold in human cognition and ultimately result in desired behavioral outcomes. For example, if we want people to stop hoarding supplies, we must repeat it.

What do we need to understand about the psychology of scarcity in order to report well on people during this pandemic?

Chakraborty: COVID-19 is a new, unfamiliar, involuntary risk that people have found themselves in by no choice of their own, hoarding behavior stems from the innate need to regain control. We will remember after Sept. 11th many people switched from flying to driving, resulting in increased auto vehicular related fatalities. We feel we have more control driving a car then flying on an airplane, despite the base-rate statistics of flying being significantly safer than travelling by car. Our brains are wired to believe the opposite is true; it’s why we should question our motivations behind our inclinations and behaviors. Are we listening to the facts or our innate biases?

What are journalists getting right & doing well, getting wrong & doing less well?

Chakraborty: We know that reporting from the point of view of those impacted the most results in better information processing for the end recipient. In the case of COVID-19, this would be from the vantage point of the elderly or those with compromised immune systems. This is prevalent in the media, as is quoting sources that are trusted by the public. Ultimately WHO is communicating trumps what is being said. People will pay attention if they perceive shared values with the sources of the information.

However, journalists have been generally poor at presenting risks in relation to other risks, and therefore putting COVID-19 in perspective. This is a scary new disease, yes, but it is not Disease X (i.e., the disease that infection disease experts describe as the harrowing combination of highly transmissible and highly lethal). This is a disease that will likely become familiar to us in the coming months and years, and it will take its place among the many viral and bacterial pathogens we have become accustomed to and live with. Emphasizing comparisons that are familiar is important to quell hysteria and unfounded public panic. Presenting information from trusted sources in the infectious disease community, like the EcoHealth Alliance, is an excellent first step.

What keeps you up at night?

Chakraborty: Our complacency during times when there isn’t an active disease outbreak.

We are at war, not with COVID-19, but with our own complacency. This outbreak was predictable. EcoHealth Alliance has identified 1.67 million pathogens worldwide that could potentially emerge as human diseases. These microorganisms lie dormant and harmless in their animal hosts, but bad human behaviors and engagement with the natural environment threaten their release as potential human infections. 

We must learn a grave lesson from this outbreak: there is a complex (and invisible) risk landscape around us and we cannot be negligent to the reality of those risks. We cannot be complacent and engaged in bad human behaviors when nothing is happening because it is ALREADY a matter of when, not if, the next disease will be released. We just need to make sure they are as few and as far in between as possible, and we are ready when they come. 

My fear is that we will forget too quickly how underprepared we were for COVID-19, and the next disease won’t be so kind.

What are you doing to take care of yourself? 

Chakraborty: We are social animals. For our mental well-being it’s critical that we continue being social during the duration of these severe physical distancing measures. We need to rebrand “social distancing” to “physical distancing.”

Those of us who are fortunate to have access can switch to the many technologies we are privileged to have today. Imagine these measures decades ago, and let’s be grateful for human ingenuity and science and tech advancement. I remind myself every day to be grateful, and I continue to connect socially and responsibly with my friends and family.