Journalists covering the coronavirus have produced compelling, informative stories, but along the way, there have been mischaracterizations, inaccuracies and absent nuances.
An ABC News story posted to its website incorrectly implied the terms coronavirus and COVID-19 can be used interchangeably, a common mistake. Stories elsewhere have failed to make clear coronavirus is not a single virus but instead refers to a family of viruses.
“With the pressure journalists feel to produce material in the current real-time media climate, I do worry that precision with terminology and medical terms gets overlooked,” said Dr. Lynn Fitzgibbons, an infectious disease specialist at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital in California.
Journalism organizations, college journalism departments and even a science publication are offering journalists guidance for accurately covering the coronavirus and COVID-19, including language to use and avoid.
“To be precise, SARS-CoV2 is the name of the currently circulating novel coronavirus. The disease it causes is called COVID-19,” Fitzgibbons said. “Encouraging reporters to be precise with these terms is really important and is itself a huge public health service.”
The Associated Press created a Coronavirus Topical Guide, which explains terms frequently used during coronavirus coverage and provides guidance on spelling (preexisting instead of pre-existing, for example) and style (social distancing, with no quotation marks or hyphen). The guide is available on AP’s online stylebook but can be accessed without a subscription.
Health and science editors at the news cooperative created the guidance based on reporting and work with numerous public health experts, said AP Stylebook Editor Paula Froke. It has evolved as the virus and disease rapidly became widely recognizable, she said.
Al Tompkins, senior faculty for broadcast and online at The Poynter Institute, writes a daily briefing about journalism and the coronavirus. In a March 4 column, he gave tips for covering the virus responsibly. Among his suggestions:
- Limit use of subjective adjectives, such as “deadly.” (Most people do not die from the virus).
- Choose images carefully to avoid conveying misleading information, such as photos that show people wearing masks. (Experts say surgical masks offer no protection from catching the virus.)
The Asian American Journalists Association urges journalists to be fair in their portrayals of Asians and Asian Americans in coronavirus stories and avoid fueling xenophobia and racism. It suggests news organizations only use images of a local Chinatown if it’s directly related to a news story, not to illustrate the virus. The organization also reminds journalists that the World Health Organization discourages the use of geographic locations when naming illnesses, thus “Wuhan virus” or “Chinese virus” would be inappropriate.
Others with suggestions for journalists include the Global Investigative Journalism Network, Scientific American, the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the Society of Professional Journalists.
Rod Hicks is Journalist on Call for the Society of Professional Journalists.