Covering the Pandemic

The psychological toll of coronavirus coverage

March 19, 2020

We already had information overload. Then came a global pandemic. Coronavirus is an “everything story,” as Jon Allsop noted in Monday’s CJR newsletter: “unfathomably huge stories—that are all part of one, even more unfathomably huge story”.

If the shuttered restaurants and roommates making a mess of your kitchen-table workspace aren’t reminder enough that COVID-19 has changed daily life, the news articles about the shuttered restaurants and myriad Twitter threads about other peoples’ roommates making a mess of their kitchen-table workspaces will intensify your awareness. 

That doesn’t even begin to cover stories which attach the pandemic to anything, everything.  The coronavirus and small businesses, the coronavirus and the stock market, the coronavirus and education, the coronavirus and the 2020 election, the coronavirus and how to cut your own bangs.

On Tuesday, the Washington Post’s health desk released a round-up of mental health experts’ practical steps to easing anxiety. In the article, psychologist Kathy HoganBruen recommends that anxious readers “really try to limit the news consumption or just staring at your phone and your computer, because for most of us that makes mental health worse rather than better.”

How responsible are we for the feelings that our stories inspire? Is it a journalist’s job to make readers afraid? Is it a journalist’s job to keep people calm? Such questions are, in a sense, an accelerated version of the dilemmas inherent in writing about climate change. 

Abby Rabinowitz wrote for CJR, in May of last year, that “there is a longtime convention among climate scientists and communicators that panic is counterproductive.” But Rabinowitz also notes David Wallace-Wells’ position in a New York Times Op-Ed from early 2019: “fear may be the only thing that saves us.” Greta Thunberg echoed Wallace-Wells in her own Op-Ed for The Guardian later the same year: “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.” 

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Dr. Narine Yegiyan, a former journalist and current professor of communication at University of California, Davis, studies how human brains prioritize information in times of cognitive and emotional overload. “Our brain uses very ancient principles to deal with a very modern world,” Yegiyan says. No matter how much information is available, human brains cannot possibly process it all. “Every minute, our body has to decide what goes in, and what information has to be sacrificed.” 

What it prioritizes, out of a survival instinct, is sensational news: Fast-moving! Big! Potentially dangerous! But hyper-focus lowers our ability to process and retain information. And when bad news is everywhere, our processing ability gets even worse. As Yegiyan explains it: “If you encounter a tiger, you’re not going to stop and figure out how many stripes it has.”

Yegiyan recommends that news organizations slow down and attempt to provide respite and build trust by being a higher-level gatekeeper for information: doing the deeper, slower thinking that news consumers don’t have the time for. 

In times of crisis, newsrooms ought not stop producing the news. But they can slow down, ask themselves what matters most, and be a calm guide for readers. Signal, not noise. 

Below, more on the coronavirus:

  • Lessons from COVID-19: For CJR, editor and publisher Kyle Pope wrote about how to cover a fast-moving pandemic. “the coronavirus, in addition to being terrifyingly contagious, acts as an unusually merciless magnifying glass, showing the flaws in our politics, our healthcare system, our social safety net. And in our media.”
  • “Five days in limbo:” Tim Herrera, editor of the New York Times’ Smarter Living column, wrote yesterday about his experience attempting to get tested for COVID-19. “Two hours of hold music. Two hours in a hospital. Four days of anxiously checking an online portal for results.That’s the winding path through bureaucracy that took me from placing my first phone call last Wednesday to getting my positive coronavirus test results on Monday night,” Herrera wrote, in a story that highlights the shortcomings of America’s current system for testing potential coronavirus patients and underlines the slippery and incomplete nature of reporting the number of cases in the U.S.
  • FOIA’d again: The FBI has limited public records requests during the pandemic by prohibiting email requests and instructing those who seek documents to send their requests via mail, BuzzFeed News reports.
  • Russian disinformation: A leaked report from European Union officials found that pro-Kremlin media outlets sought to amplify and promote conspiracy theories and disinformation about the origin of the coronavirus, the severity of its spread, and public figures that had been diagnosed, The Guardian reported yesterday. Promoting such disinformation, rather than inventing it, “allows them to avoid the accusation of creating disinformation themselves, claiming instead that they are merely reporting what others are saying,” the report says.
  • Getting by: Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter have sent home many content moderators, who cannot do their jobs remotely without raising legal concerns or privacy risks, WIRED reports. Sending workers home promotes physical health, but risks the health of the social media ecosystem. “Leaving the task of moderation largely up to the machines means accepting more mistakes and a reduced ability to rectify them at a time when there is little room for error,” Louise Matsakis and Paris Martineau write.
  • “It could be the end:” The president of the Sacramento News and Review reported on Tuesday that the company’s newspapers are struggling to meet payroll. Papers in Sacramento, Chico, and Reno have suspended print publication but will continue online. “There is a misperception that content somehow just exists on the internet,” he wrote. “That content needs to be created first. And that is our business. We are appealing to anyone who wants to help keep our journalism alive.”


Other notable stories:

  • Voice Media Group, which publishes the Phoenix New Times, Denver Westword, the Dallas Observer, Houston Press, and Miami New Times, announced to employees that they were implementing a 25 percent pay cut, with layoffs likely to follow. Taylor Dolven, a reporter at the Miami Herald, tweeted to commend the New Times’s recent reporting on the Norwegian Cruise Line, which encouraged employees to lie to customers about COVID-19. Dolven added that the current public health emergency “calls for more dogged journalism, not less.” And Military Times staffers reported on Twitter that they had been furloughed until April 6 at the earliest. “To be told I cannot work at my job during this historic time is extremely frustrating,” Navy Times reporter Courtney Mabeus tweeted. “We are storytellers who help write the first draft of history. Right now, the stories are coming from every angle.”
  •  A new Pew Research report states that most Americans feel that the press is doing fairly well in its coverage of COVID-19. But, at the same time, nearly half of survey participants reported encountering some kind of misinformation about the virus, and about 40 percent of respondents believed the media has greatly exaggerated the risks of the disease.
  • On the Intercepted podcast, Naomi Klein talked about the power of social media as a unifying force. “I think we need to be using every tool that we have, and we are really lucky that we have a lot of tools that allow us to hear each other’s voices, to read each other’s thoughts, even to see each other’s faces even if it’s just on screens, to stay organized and stay connected,” Klein told Jeremy Scahill.
  • Groups of Canadian citizens have leveraged online networks to start a trend and coin the phrase “care-mongering,” connecting people who need help with people who can provide it.

ICYMI: Making the Biggest Story Small

Lauren Harris is a freelance journalist. She writes CJR's weekly newsletter for the Journalism Crisis Project. Follow her on Twitter @LHarrisWrites