Because fear is just as contagious as the virus itself.

If the climate crisis, antics of world leaders gone astray and messy Brexit negotiations ruled the news last year, Covid-19 was our New Year’s Eve treat to ring in the new decade. 

Since December 31st 2019, when Chinese medics were treating dozens of cases which they identified as a new type of viral pneumonia, the media has been awash with pieces covering everything from the spread of the virus itself to its effect on the economy, people’s increasing fear and of course, the panic buying of toilet roll. 

Not only has it dominated major news headlines all across the world, but media outlets have been quick to launch their own micro-products in response to the virus. The New York Times, The Times of London and The Washington Post all have launched dedicated coronavirus newsletters, whilst CNN and ThreeUncannyFour have both launched new audio projects that will cover the outbreak. These are just a handful, with inevitably more to come. 

However, whilst many conversations around whether these products are helpful (or just another way of inciting fear using clickbait tactics), an important question arises – how do you keep audiences informed and engaged through times of global crisis? 

What’s the focus?

The way the virus has been covered across different countries gives us some clues about best practices. “Attention to how media messages address the virus, its transmission and risk varied significantly across types of coverage and by the nation that produces it,” says Katie Foss, a professor of media studies at the School of Journalism and Strategic Media at Middle Tennessee State University in a piece for U.S. Today. This has been interesting to note, particularly for nations that haven’t had many initial cases of the virus compared the first wave in countries such as China, Iran, Japan, South Korea and Italy. 

“Media coverage is vital to our shared conversations and plays a key role in regulating our emotions, including fear,” says Karin Wahl-Jorgensen, author of Emotions, Media & Politics in her piece for The Conversation. “While fear is an emotion that we frequently experience as individuals, it can also be a shared and social emotion, one which circulates through groups and communities and shapes our reactions to ongoing events. Like other emotions, fear is contagious and can spread swiftly.”

Whether the focus has been fear, stockpiling, there has been some excellent production around explaining the structural problems that helped make Covid-19 a pandemic. Where’s the Vaccine? a podcast by Planet Money dives into why the emergency market for vaccines can be so chaotic and Vox Media’s video on how legislation and famine turned Wuhan Wet Market (and others), into a perfect place for transmitting animal-human viruses. The focus is changing as rapidly as the virus itself, so newsrooms need to be agile to tend to audiences changing needs.

Misinformation concerns

A study by Time Magazine, showed that in English-language print news covering the Covid-19 outbreak, there were 23 times more articles in its first month compared to the same time period for the Ebola epidemic in 2018. This is the first time in history we have had up-to-the-minute information about how to protect ourselves in a global pandemic. However, increased traffic from audiences accessing information means that it has become a beacon of opportunity for the distribution of fake news. 

Although herd immunity might not work for containing a pandemic, it could work for containing misinformation. But recent events have shown that this is no small feat. Facebook, arguably the global nucleus of fake news, has attempted to censor non-legitimate Covid-19 articles and instead has found itself in hot water by also censoring Covid-19 articles from legitimate sources. Blaming it on a bug, Facebook scrambled to fix the error. It seems that software bug’s such as those of Facebook are just as viral as the bug that is Covid-19. 

Tom Phillips, editor of UK fact-checking agency Full Fact, outlined three separate categories of Covid-19 misinformation in his opinion piece for The Guardian. The first category is what he describes as beginning “life with a kernel of truth”. This was evidenced by the fact that yes, children do suffer less from the virus, but it is in no way less dangerous because they are able to carry it and pass it on to family and other people they come into contact with. 

The second, Phillips explains, are misconceptions about the term “coronavirus” and that because it is a family of viruses, this has led to conspiracy theories that Covid-19 is not new, and has existed for a long time, a strategy manufactured by geopolitical forces. 

The third, and perhaps the most dangerous, is non-legitimate health advice posing as official guidelines which we know, even when legitimate, health advice is one of the easiest to misreport accurately and ethically. The UK’s National Health Service is attacking this by teaming up with tech giants Facebook and Twitter but as we’ve seen, misinformation is moving quicker than can be strategically dealt with. Buzzfeed’s list of Covid-19-related hoaxes was a good step in reorienting readers to share the piece and rule out anything that seems suspicious, whilst Wikipedia is showing a new strength in its collective-editing on its Covid-19 articles posted on WikiProject Medicine and TIME Magazine shows people just how sophisticated misinformation can look. NewsGuard have launched a Coronavirus Misinformation Tracking Center, listing the websites distributing false information.

As newsrooms, it is important to make sure that your readers are able to spot misinformation, but that your journalists are also being extra-vigilant about reporting fake news, too. Phillips states: “As much as we rely on our public institutions and elected politicians, established news outlets are also seen as a dependable source of health information. While plenty of media outlets have been behaving responsibly, we deserve better than the exaggeration and speculation we’ve seen from some. This is too important for a “publish first, check later” approach,” he says. “We face a global public health crisis in the age of unprecedented and rampant misinformation – good health advice can make the difference between life and death.”

The rallying cry of #flattenthecurve 

Despite the severity of the pandemic, this has been an incredible moment for data journalism. The works being produced by newsrooms across the world has seen everyone coming together around one concept – how to flatten the curve. 

One of the key pieces came from Harry Stevens of The Washington Post. Normally behind a paywall, The Washington Post decided this piece was all too important to be available only for its subscribers. They also used it as a way to gain more subscribers for their Coronavirus newsletter, of which all stories are free to access. A clear example of why publishing in a time of crisis needs to be accessible to everyone. 

The piece includes several animated graphs that showcase different scenarios based on policy and behaviour, modelled from what other countries had done and experienced. What was most crucial though, is that the graphs results are randomised (within a specific outcome of course). This meant that every reader saw a slightly different visualisation of how the pandemic would play out (free-for-all, an attempted quarantine, moderate social distancing and extensive social distancing). Each person then receives a comparison of their results, unique to them and shareable. 

They called their fake disease ‘Simulitis’, based on mathematical calculations of how Covid-19 would spread. But they do state: “These simulations vastly oversimplify the complexity of real life. Yet just as simulitis spreads through the networks of bouncing balls on your screen, covid-19 is spreading through our human networks — through our countries, our towns, our workplaces, our families. And, like a ball bouncing across the screen, a single person’s behavior can cause ripple effects that touch faraway people.”

The key part? “In one crucial respect, though, these simulations are nothing like reality: Unlike simulitis, covid-19 can kill. Though the fatality rate is not precisely known, it is clear that the elderly members of our community are most at risk of dying from covid-19.”

The piece ends with forewarning from Drew Harris, a population health researcher and assistant professor at The Thomas Jefferson University College of Public Health. “If you want this to be more realistic some of the dots should disappear.”

Anti-viral strategies for engaging audiences

  1. Reach out. We’re seeing great work from community teams across newsrooms reaching out to collect stories from their readers about how Covid-19 is affecting them such as The Guardian’s new video project documenting the impact of the outbreak across the UK. Our polls help you ask these questions and get a measure of how your readers feel instantly. 
  2. Utilise your insights. Make use of the insights you’re receiving from your polls – is fear the biggest feeling? How can you balance that with your content? At Opinary our insights can help you map fear over time and geographic location to help understand more deeply how your audiences feel. 
  3. Help them make sense of it. So much information is being published about the virus, but some readers are feeling overwhelmed. Try including explainers in your editorial plans. 
  4. Be responsive. If you don’t have all the answers, let your readers know you are working on finding out. 
  5. Share reporting responsibilities. It’s important that in a global health crisis, you make sure you look after your reporters too. 
  6. Explain your approach. Be clear about your reporting strategy to keep your audience in the loop and share the journey with you. Some of our publishers have been keen to question official decisions (such as closing schools), whilst others are keen to note changing behaviours (such as if their readers have been stockpiling, for example). 
  7. Create a support network. Many people across the globe are being negatively affected by the crisis, so offer them information where they can find support. 

So what insights can you get from this?

At Opinary, we’re able to offer our partners key insights into their audience. From graphs that map long-term shifts in opinion to audience comparison insights showing what your audience thinks compared to other publishers, as well as opinion changes across geography. 

We’ve found that our publishers who have been embedding the same poll over and over again are finding voting results in the hundreds of thousands such as this poll from Yahoo! News UK, which at the time of writing has received nearly 400,000 votes.

Some of our most active partners have found new and novel angles to engage with their readers on the crisis. Behavioural questions such as  How difficult are you finding working from home? or Have you been stockpiling during this Coronavirus outbreak?. Generational questions such as Do you think younger or older people are doing better at social distancing? or future pondering – Do you think life after the coronavirus will be different?  Or Are you worried the Coronavirus will create a global recession?. We are continuing to create Covid-19 specific polls, so keep checking your dashboard for inspiration. 

In order to continue supporting our partners during this crisis, we have launched a special insight newsletter to keep you informed about how your audience is feeling during this pandemic, publishing insights from users across the entire Opinary network. 

If you want to know more about how to measure and map how your audience feels about Covid-19, get in touch with Sabrina here or sign up to our #CoronaPulse insights newsletter to stay updated: UK & Europe here or US here