Covid-19: Broad guidelines for media coverage

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By Bhaswati Patnaik, Navaneeta Rath and Srijit Mishra

The world has now realised that Covid-19 pandemic cannot be cured, but has to be endured. To minimise the impact of the disease, its spread needs to be arrested and the morale of the people needs to be maintained. The role of media, including social media, during this crisis is important. It can play a significant role in managing the current risk in public health because of its ability to reach a large audience.

Media is a connector and disseminator. It is an important partner in communication of interventions that could limit the transmission of the virus. However, media sometimes runs the risk of adversely affecting the sensibilities of the masses when the information about the pandemic is shared without careful thought, particularly when the scientific knowledge on the disease is itself evolving and nascent. The socio-cultural factors coupled with psychological make-up of the people can interact with the shared information in ways that can have far-reaching implications on the collective interest of the nation. Therefore, media needs to exercise caution regarding the standards of accuracy, quality and style of information and its dissemination.

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Dos and don’ts for media

In a recent paper, Using social and behavioural science to support Covid-19 pandemic response, Nature Human Behaviour 4, 460-71 (2020), Jay J Van Bavel et al discuss six aspects, — threat perception, leadership, individual and collective interests, science communication, social context, and stress and coping. This policy brief, drawing largely from that discussion and also from our observations from India in general and those from Odisha in particular, suggests some dos and don’ts for media communication. We are of the view that the suggestions can serve as guiding principles during the current pandemic not only for the established print and visual media, but also for public engagements by the authorities and for the lay public in their shares and forwards. The dos and don’ts are elaborated here.

The dos

Do highlight constructive practices that keep people engaged during quarantine at home. Pictures and videos in the print, electronic and social media need to reduce the monotony and boredom of the people and show them ways to make proactive use of leisure time in health promoting strategies for self and family.

Do showcase the exemplary work of individuals or communities. For instance, the work of frontline workers, social activists, and self-help group members among others needs to be amply highlighted to boost their morale and inspire the common public.

Do frame the potential fear-arousing messages with words that compel people to adopt safety practices.

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Do communicate figures or statistics that makes people neither underestimate nor exaggerate the severity of the event. For example, death tolls may be accompanied by recovery cases.

Do refer to credible sources of information that is available in public domain or one that has been subjected to appropriate review.

Do supplement national leaders’ directives with complementary voices from local authorities to generate greater compliance.

Do expose people to the impending danger that the country is going to face so that their behaviour is not risky.

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Do instill tolerance and fellow feeling for out-groups (including those who have recently returned and irrespective of the fact they belong to a particular community or have come from a hotspot zone).

Do communicate the changes needed in policies, principles and practices that could enable better fight against the pandemic.

The Don’ts

Do not give exposure to irrational, unfounded and outraging information that can exacerbate the existing prejudices and polarisations.

Do not promote commercial, yellow journalism for profit. For instance, avoid promoting a particular brand of sanitizer or mask.

Do not use old information that is no more relevant in the current context and can create confusion.

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Do not propagate misinformation. For instance, there was a news that members of a particular community have self-inflicted themselves and have come as bio agents to spread the disease.

Do not become a myth spreader.

Do not allow trivial matters and rumours to draw mass attention for creating sensation. This is not the time for dogma, but for evidence-based inquiry. This is not the time for one-upmanship, but for togetherness.

Do not convey messages of ‘we versus they’. It is not about them.

Do not use languages like super spreader, or patient zero.

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Do not reveal personal or other socio-ethnic details that can create hatred or xenophobia.

Do not use the term social distancing as it may convey that there is no need for meaningful social exchanges during the time of crisis. Avoid linking distancing for public health with social ills like untouchability.

Do not highlight news that can bring abuse, such as, Chinese virus or an Islamic agenda.

Do not send messages that appeal to superstitions or those that that serves the interest of a specific community.

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Do not spread divisive news and glorify any ideology or political stand that divides to rule. Avoid making community or group specific statements that alienate people from each other and can narrow down their belongingness.

Do not spread anxiety provoking messages such as suicide by a patient detected with coronavirus, resentment in quarantine homes and domestic violence among others. While showing such news, the adverse implications on the individuals, their family members and the community at large needs to be indicated.

Do not include only deviant behaviour of the public that disregards guidelines issued by authorities that is meant for collective good. The negative consequences of such behaviour on the person concerned as also the society at large also needs to be included.

Do not send potential fear-arousing messages that weakens self-efficacy of people and renders them helpless during the bio disaster.

Do not share only positive or only negative facts which lead people to believe that they are either less or more likely to experience a negative event than what the reality is.

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Do not share randomly selected piece of information leaving the audience to wonder on its veracity and authenticity.

Do not share guidelines that sound impersonal, and appears too external to make an impact on peoples’ health seeking behaviour and practices.

Do not emphasize on past glory that may create over confidence among the public that nothing harmful is going to happen.

Do not disseminate messages that steer ethno-centrism and intolerance towards out-groups. Avoid highlighting events that deteriorate out-group attitudes and then adversely affect international cooperation and understanding.

Do not emphasise the existing policies, principles and practices that may prove detrimental to pose a fruitful fight against the disaster.

Conclusion

The above 22 dos and don’ts are indicative and not exhaustive. It points out that responsible reporting needs to be the guiding principle for the media (including print, visual, public engagement by authorities as also shares and forwards by lay public) during the pandemic COVID-19. threat perception, leadership, individual and collective interests, science communication, social context, and stress and coping If the aforesaid dos and don’ts can be adhered to and media can wed to the twin principles of ‘activism and accountability’, it can help the country to fight the crisis as brave warriors.

(Bhaswati Patnaik is Professor and Head, Department of Psychology, Utkal University, Bhubaneswar. Navaneeta Rath is Professor, Department of Sociology and Director, School of Women’s Studies, Utkal University, Bhubaneswar. Srijit Mishra is Director Nabakrushna Choudhury Centre for Development Studies (NCDS) and Professor (on Leave), Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research (IGIDR), Mumbai. This is a reproduction of the tenth NCDS policy brief in the COVID-19 series. The views expressed in this policy brief are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the organisations that they are affiliated to.)

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