Eleven ways to appropriately report on COVID-19

WHEN  it comes to reporting on COVID-19, language and images matter. Here are the reasons why, and how we can report appropriately to prevent stigma and discrimination.

In the nineties, many reports around HIV on the news media were horrific. Pictures of bones and skulls were used on TV to portray HIV as a “death sentence.” This may have been well- intentioned – perhaps to persuade people to take heed to advice on preventative measures, but it ended up proliferating stigma and discrimination, even hampering public health intervention.

Conversations around HIV at the time quickly moved underground, giving room for misinformation and myth-spreading. Several people even avoided knowing their HIV status because of the damaging ways HIV was portrayed. Some news agencies described HIV as a “curse” and even official reports described the virus as a “deadly killer.”

The imagery surrounding HIV were perpetuated to the point that even those who gained the confidence to publicly disclose their HIV status were often met with disbelief on the grounds that they didn’t look “skinny” or “sickly” as the media had portrayed people living with HIV to be. One man I interviewed in 2006 said he was skeptical about being around anyone wearing red in a hospital because he assumed the colour red and HIV were synonymous.

As a community radio presenter anchoring the radio magazine “Flava” for a decade, my colleagues and I regularly travelled across Nigeria’s 36 states producing programmes in the bid to change some of the negative public perception around HIV, some of which were perpetuated by other media platforms. With a more positive application of language and imagery, the landscape of reporting HIV changed in Nigeria.

Now with COVID-19 (not similar to HIV, of course), there seem to be some similar concerns with how the current use of language could perpetuate negative stereotypes, create widespread fear, and dehumanize those who are affected. Perhaps some of the tips we had developed from HIV reporting could also be applicable here. This article seeks to propose some terminologies and images to avoid (and what to use instead) when reporting on COVID-19.

1.     Avoid using combative metaphors, such as “‘the war’ or ‘battle’ against COVID-19”, as this tends to give people an inaccurate or exaggerated perception of COVID-19. Some might imagine there exists a physical enemy to “fight”, perpetuating stigma on persons affected. A “response to COVID-19” is more appropriate.

2.     Avoid using sensationalist terms such as “scourge” or “plague”. This may, in some cases, cause people to link the infection to diabolical or supernatural origins, and has a a tendency to heighten panic, resulting in stigma and discrimination.

3.     Avoid distinguishing persons affected by COVID-19 from the “general population.”  For example, saying that “people with COVID-19 shouldn’t mix with the general population” implies that those affected are not part of the general population, creating a notion of division.

4.     Avoid using images of dead or dying people. It fuels hysteria.

5.     Avoid using images that may perpetuate bias against a certain country, race, age group or other demographic.

6.     Factual accuracy is crucial. It may be more accurate to report that someone has died of “COVID-19-related illnesses” or “complications arising from COVID-19” than to state categorically that they “died of COVID-19”.  Several cases exist of deaths caused not by infection itself, but by predisposition to other illnesses, caused by the infection.

7.     Avoid using terminal expressions such as “deadly virus” or making extreme statements such as “COVID-19 kills”. This is too conclusive, and it is not entirely factual. There are thousands of people who have recovered from the infection. And many more thousands who are infected and asymptomatic. Such a statement can perpetuate fear and notions of helplessness.

8.     It may be better to refer to COVID-19 as an “infection” than a “disease.” This is because the word “infection” denotes the virus entering the body, while the word “disease” usually refers to cells damaged as a result of an infection. Since evidence has revealed that some people who contract the virus remain asymptomatic, it may be more appropriate (and mindful) to refer to COVID-19 as an “infection” and not categorically a “disease.”

9.     Try not to say that one can “catch COVID-19”, or that one is “carrying the virus”. No one “carries” COVID-19. It is not an object. Using active words like “catch” and “carry” implies deliberate action by those affected. The same applies to using the words “transmit” or “spread”. These terms connote wilful intention and could fuel criticisms. It is better to use the word “contract” as in “…one may contract the virus…”



    10.  Try not to use the phrase “risk group” when reporting on COVID-19. This is because no age, social, or racial group is exclusively at risk for COVID-19. Erroneously identifying “risk groups” increases stigma and discrimination. It also lulls those outside said demographics into a false sense of security. Whilst data may show that certain people may be disproportionately affected, similar exposures put other people at risk for COVID-19 and not just a “group” they belong to.

    11.  The WHO has cautioned against the use of terms like “COVID-19 sufferers”, “COVID-19 victims”, “COVID-19 suspects” etc. The first two imply powerlessness and the latter denotes criminality. Conversely, a statement such as “innocent children are affected by COVID-19,” is problematic too. This is because the use of the word “innocent” is discriminatory as it implies that others are “guilty.”

    There is always a message within a language. Words and images by themselves can shape public opinion, perception, and attitudes. They could also readily promote stigmatization and discrimination even when unintended. The language we use as we report on COVID-19 should be constructive; It should dispel myths and stereotypes, and not contribute to prejudice. When reporting on COVID-19, our language should be straightforward, positive, and non-judgmental.

    Jake Okechukwu Effoduh is a human rights lawyer and Vanier Scholar at York University in Canada. He can be reached on Twitter @effodu

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