COVID-19 Coverage by the Media and its Effects on Human Behavior

News of the COVID-19 outbreak spread worldwide in a dangerously fast pace due to the swift advancement in technology and communication platforms. Due to the variability and vastness in different media types, the media played a huge role in circulating information, influenced public behavior, and helped cartel the spread of the coronavirus.

The media acts as the primary source of information and plays a vital role in educating the masses. However, even when freely available, trustworthy news is crucial, particularly when conveying government-mandated and personal risk guidelines. In the present era, mass media has become a powerful tool that affects and controls disease outcomes in several ways. How the media portrays health issues not only influences public behavior but also the long-term repercussions for people’s health.

As such, media’s coverage of the pandemic health crisis should offer balanced messaging about a pandemic and the general public behavior. This is because when overly eager media spread information without prudent verification, not only can it be harmful but also can have incidental consequences.

Level of Coverage

According to a report published in the Times magazine, in January 2020- the first month in which the outbreak was known, over 41,000 English-language articles contained the term “coronavirus” and 19,000 of them made it to the headlines.

In their initial coverage of the pandemic, most leading news sources were objective and generally authoritative.  The reporting did not seem to allocate explicit blame to any specific group or government. They gave precedence to the public’s need to know, and as gatekeepers of information, they sought out scientists, public health experts and governments for accurate information regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, the tone and frequency of articles published about the COVID-19 pandemic escalated with the rise in societal, economic and health disruptions. A report published on Recode in March showed that out of 3,000 high-traffic news sites, around 1% of published articles were related to the COVID-19 disease. They also generated 13% of all views, with subtopics such as flattening the curve, social distancing, and self-quarantine being popular. In addition, the total number of articles viewed was approximately 30% higher than a few months before.

 Many media corporations were seen to incite panic and cause stigmatization by pointing fingers, creating a sense that it was a foreign ailment, a politician, an organization, or a specific government’s fault. All this was motivated by the media’s need to stay relevant and to keep the story about the pandemic trending.

An influx in Misinformation

Unfortunately, the blame game, the misinformation, and over sensitization of the pandemic only served to hurt the rational and sensible debate, which helps, maintain a sound perspective on the situation as well as the need for a united front in order to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic.

For instance, there were fake reports circulating around Iran, indicating that the ingestion of methanol could cure the COVID-19 virus. Unfortunately, this resulted in over 300 deaths. In addition, several deaths were reported from the use of hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) after Donald Trump’s endorsement of the drug as a “game changer” in a tweet that went viral on social media. HCQ, a lyso-somatotrophic agent, is an approved drug to treat malaria and other autoimmune diseases. However, the efficacy of HCQ in humans is yet to be determined, and this misinformation proved hazardous for the public.

Reports show that many people died because of its overuse.  In Nigeria, two people are reported to have died after an overdose from the drug and a man in Arizona, USA died after taking it as self-medication. HCQ has adverse effects like long QT syndrome, electrical arrhythmias, torsades de pointes (abnormal heart rhythm that can lead to sudden cardiac death), and sudden death.

In just a small period, HCQ was depicted over social media and other media channels as a wonder drug capable of curing the coronavirus, thus misleading the public about its effectiveness and the underlying negative consequences. This just proves that politicians should never be allowed to give scientific information to the public, and especially using the media as a platform.

Fortunately, the WHO has been trying to combat the spread of misinformation by periodically meeting with the health sector, faith-based organizations the private sector, travel and tourism industry, the World organization of family doctors as well as other organizations to aid in the spread of accurate information. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have also been providing links on news feeds to credible health sources such as websites of local health authorities and Google scholar to highlight leading medical journals and related medical resources.

Negative Sentiments

The media is also to blame for the rise of negative sentiments during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a report, over 141,000 English language news headlines related to the coronavirus between the month of January and June 2020, 52% of the headlines evoked negative sentiments. Only 30% of the headlines evoked positive sentiments.

The media was also largely used as a platform to spread prejudice among the people by spreading unverified stories about the origin of the virus. This prompted socioeconomic and racial discrimination and inaccessibility to equal healthcare only made the situation worse.

The authors of the report suggest that such over sensitized news stories and click bait headlines contributed to fear and uncertainty among the general population, leading to negative economic and health outcomes.

Moving Forward: Responsible Media Coverage of the COVID-19 Pandemic

With pandemics such as COVID-19 likely to become more frequent, and probably more harmful due to increase in human-animal contact and globalization, the media needs to be more careful in the information they share with the public. Outlined below are a few factors that the media should consider in any outbreak to play their role as gatekeepers of information effectively and practically.

  1. Public health communication

People tend to turn to media platforms for information whenever there is a disease outbreak. Unfortunately, varying and extensive news coverage can make the public feel dazed and the spread of unscientific news tends to create panic among the masses. During the COVID-19 epidemic, a lot of misleading information spread unverified by using different types of media, creating confusion and chaos among the public. To mitigate this in the future, media should consider utilizing third-party fact-checkers to limit the dissemination of the unverified information. They should only post information on social media or air on television information that pertains to CDC or WHO guidelines.

  • Health education

In the health crisis, the media plays a pivotal role by promoting physical and psychological measures, as well as ensuring that people from different socioeconomic positions remain resilient. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the media should ensure they provide public knowledge regarding social distancing (at least 1.5 m), appropriate use of facemasks, and the proper guidelines for recognizing, diagnosing, and managing the coronavirus disease.

  • Reduction of stigma, discrimination and prejudice

In unprecedented times of a health crisis, mired with stigma, prejudice, and stigmatization, the media has the potential to end discrimination and unite people by spreading awareness. The media is also a great resource for verifying information. However, for this work, there should be responsible use of media platforms with proper checks and balances for any information shared with the public. This way, the media will prevent the spread of rumors and end stigmatization of people affected by the coronavirus.

  • Telemedicine

Whenever the world is faced by unprecedented times, telemedicine is always the best strategic step in dealing with pandemics. It has always been employed in times of disasters and wars. In this COVID-19 era, it can be used not only for those in need of virus testing but also dealing with people grappling with other health issues. The media can help implement specific essential measures such as setting up telephone helplines and online doctor services, delivery of pharmacy drugs, and managing diseases via video calls.

For other COVID-19 related resources, check out our COVID-19 Category on the blog, and let us know your thoughts.



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