Coronavirus headlines are taking readers on a roller coaster of fear, hope and confusion. Here are tips for telling what’s true and what’s not.
Medical staff check the temperature of passengers at Nanjing South Railway station in Nanjing, China, 27 January 2020. (EPA-EFE/SU YANG)
The headlines about the coronavirus — a new virus that has started infecting people in China and elsewhere — are alarming. They can take readers on a roller coaster of fear, hope and confusion.
This is nothing new. Outbreaks of new diseases can be terrifying, and news coverage of these types of stories lend themselves to misleading and downright terrible reporting.
How can anyone be sure what’s true and what’s not?
A little history
A little history helps explain some of today’s breathless coverage.
In late 2002, a mysterious virus started spreading and killing people in China. The Chinese government said almost nothing about it, fearing national embarrassment. It took months of pressure for the truth to come out about severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). In the meantime, thousands became infected and hundreds died.
Chinese officials have been much more open this time around and quickly shared samples of the new virus with the world, something that allowed it to be sequenced within days instead of months. That, in turn, helped confirm this was a new coronavirus, with similarities to SARS, and allowed scientists to kickstart work on vaccines and drugs.
But mistrust from 2002 and 2003 remains. That can lead to accusations of coverups and insinuations that the virus is worse than it actually is.
A lack of expertise explains the errors.
Take, for example, headlines like this one in the the UK’s The Telegraph newspaper about “mutating” viruses and exaggerations of how this one spreads: “Coronavirus is becoming more contagious and can infect during incubation, Chinese authorities warn”
But no Chinese authority said the virus was becoming more contagious. This is biologically unlikely, and it’s not what the Chinese officials said.
“We are not clear about the risk of its mutation and how it spreads,” the story accurately quotes Chinese health minister Ma Xiaowei as saying. “Since this is a new coronavirus there might be some changes in the coming days and weeks, and the danger it poses to people of different ages is also changing.” The changes he refers to are changes in what is known about the virus, not in the virus itself.
Ma said there was some evidence it might be able to infect people during the incubation period, which is the time between when someone is exposed to an infection and when they develop symptoms. This is important for understanding the spread of the infection. But Ma didn’t say it was certain the virus spread this way. And, most importantly, he did not release information that would support the idea.
“I’d like to see the real data that shows that’s the case as opposed to taking someone’s press release announcement for it,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, who heads the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told NPR News.
The story in The Telegraph was written by the newspaper’s China correspondent, who could not be expected to understand medical subtleties. But this lack of expertise explains the erroneous and misleading headlines that have multiplied.
Disease outbreaks are fast-moving stories. Every news organization wants to be first with the news. Amplifying all of this is social media, which gives everyone a megaphone and allows immediate sharing of everyone’s idea of news.
Government and health officials try to be seen to be on top of the outbreak and also want to look like they are sharing what they know, when they know it. But daily briefings with case counts and increments of new knowledge sometimes drive an emphasis on details at the expense of the big picture.
News outlets also want to offer hope, which can explain headlines such as this one: “Coronavirus CURE? China says new treatment tested on nurses ‘successful'”
“CORONAVIRUS treatment has been successfully administered, according to Chinese state media, after China raced to find a vaccine,” the story reads. “The latest possible breakthrough comes as China’s National Health Commission warned the ability of the coronavirus to spread is strengthening and infections could continue to rise.”
Neither thing happened. There isn’t a specific treatment for coronavirus yet available. Patients can and do recover on their own with what is known as supportive care to keep them alive while their body fights the infection.
Many sources are offering bad advice.
One way to tell that this story might not be accurate is the lack of a source. Phrases such as “the latest possible breakthrough” are also clear warnings pointing to exaggerated and imprecise coverage. Use of all capital letters can point to over-the-top writing meant to titillate or scare rather than accurately inform.
Another newspaper reported that the first British patient tested for coronavirus revealed he was treated by doctors in spaceman suits. “Spaceman suits” sounds very frightening and carries the suggestion that this is an extremely dangerous virus. The story didn’t explain that head-to-toe paper coverups are often worn when treating patients with diseases or infections that are not fully understood yet.
Many news and online sources are offering just plain bad advice.
“The first thing you need to do if you experience any symptoms is to go to a hospital and get yourself checked. It is better to stay on the safer side,” one “what-to-do” article advised.
That is flat-out wrong. What the World Health Organization (WHO), U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other national health agencies advise is to telephone ahead to your doctor if you suspect you may have coronavirus because you were exposed to someone who had it. Reputable news outlets will link to direct sources such as WHO, the CDC or local health departments.
The information firehose
Doctors and scientists know it’s important to share what they know with other researchers. Their reports are published online quickly, and reporters in the know jump on them.
Experienced reporters know that the early identification of patients, the course of their disease, any treatments and other factors are only pieces of a fast-developing story. Inexperienced journalists may think they understand what these reports are saying and may misinterpret them.
Responsible news outlets also know that SARS hit global markets and hit China’s tourism and export industries hard. So financial reporting is naturally important in the context of a new disease. However, it’s easy to get carried away here, too.
Take this breathless story headlined, “Coronavirus: Deadly disease sparks fears of global financial meltdown – ‘Watch out!’”
“The rapid spread of the deadly Coronavirus throughout the world has sparked fears of a catastrophic global financial meltdown — triggering the same panic that spread through markets when SARS infected the world nearly 17 years ago,” Britain’s Daily Express reported.
Extremely vague sources are a warning sign.
The story is based on tweets from a single former hedge fund manager. He had tweeted: “The new virus spreading like wildfire in China (Coronavirus) is exactly like SARS in 2002” and “SARS virus caused a big correction in stocks in 2002. If the Coronavirus spreads like SARS, watch out.”
Social media posts from a single person no longer working in the financial markets are not a good source for predicting what markets will do.
So what are good sources? Reliable coverage will quote more than one expert to back up headlines. Those experts will have titles that show they know what they are talking about, such as “health minister” or “director of the CDC’s Center for the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases” or “WHO director-general”.
“It was said,” “it was learned,” “it was revealed” are all extremely vague sources, and reports using such phrases should be disregarded unless more precise sourcing is given later on in the story. And just because a story links to a study doesn’t make it legitimate. There are many online “journals” that don’t require high-quality science.
There is a cadre of international health journalists who have reported on disease outbreaks and pandemics year in and year out.
They tend to work at the large international wire services such as Associated Press and Reuters, or reputable newspapers such as the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Financial Times and the Independent, all of which have teams of specialized health and science writers.
Specialized medical and science outlets such as STAT News and Kaiser Health news have dedicated teams of reporters and editors who are experienced and knowledgeable.
Maggie Fox has been reporting on health and science for more than 20 years and before that covered conflict, politics and other international events from London, Hong Kong and Beirut. She covered the cloning of Dolly the sheep, Ebola epidemics, stem cell technology, vaccine controversies and other stories for Reuters, National Journal and NBC News. She lives in Washington, DC.