Published on Mar 31, 2020

  • Published on Mar 31, 2020
  • Most journalists have been careful and responsible when covering COVID-19 issues, says health communication expert at Harvard.
  • The flood of COVID-19 information has created an "unintentional saturation effect," increasing feelings of doom and gloom.
  • Most daily science developments aren't relevant to the general public; instead seek reliable news sources that offer actionable information.
  • Social media is contributing to the infodemic crisis and feelings of gloom and doom.

Video Transcript

JOHN WHYTE, MD, MPH: Hello, I'm Dr. John Whyte, Chief Medical Officer at WebMD. And welcome to Coronavirus in Context. Today, we're going to talk about how well the media is covering coronavirus. And my guest is Dr. Vish Vishwanath. He's professor of health communication at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. And I've had the opportunity to work with Vish many times over the past decades. I'm delighted he can join us today. Hello, Vish.

VISH VISHWANATH, PHD: Hi, John. Thank you for having me.

JOHN WHYTE: Sure. Let's start off with how do you feel the media is doing in communicating what's really going on with coronavirus?

VISH VISHWANATH: So there are two ways to look at it, John. One, I think if you talk about mainstream media, whether it is newspapers -- but the news media -- newspapers in particular.


VISH VISHWANATH: And some other mainstream television networks, I'm actually impressed with the coverage and how careful they have been and how responsible most journalists have been on covering these issues -- particularly not just about what is happening in a descriptive way in terms of providing the latest government advisories, but also highlighting certain issues that are local to each place and state. So if you take each individual medium, like a newspaper, I think they are doing a great job.

JOHN WHYTE: What I hope the folks that say it's all doom and gloom? And you turn on the news, and we're seeing a number of deaths, and the number of cases, and they're updating it every few minutes. You're great about messaging and images -- how does that impact a viewer or reader's psyche?

VISH VISHWANATH: The intentionality of the media is not under question here, I think. So I was going to say, but there is an unintentional effect of the saturation coverage that we have seen. And that's where the impression that there is doom and gloom is coming about. You see, what is happening is if I am reading newspapers, if I am watching TV, if I am also following through social media, then what I'm experiencing is saturation coverage, right?

And that's where I begin to feel that the sky is falling, because I don't see anything but 72-point banner headlines, images that are sometimes body bags, are people in ICUs. Some of them are genuinely COVID-19 related messages. Some of them are file messages -- some of that picked up from previous studies. And I think each individual media story is not doing it, but collectively, the impact is such that the people are now perceiving with this saturation coverage that there's nothing but bad news and it is doom and gloom.

JOHN WHYTE: Is there distortion with the saturation? So if I see someone wearing masks on a local feed, does that mean I should be wearing one despite what experts are saying? It's those images that are having impact.

VISH VISHWANATH: The unintended effect of that kind of coverage, especially imagery, right -- the text may not always follow, but images are very vivid, images are very powerful. And when you see imagery where people are wearing masks, then there is a perception -- whether it is true or not, there is a perception that everybody else is doing it, why am I not doing it, right?

So it is kind of an unintentional effect of a saturation coverage, particularly the imagery where you see people taking some extreme steps. That's when you start seeing -- people are not public opinion experts, right? So they have to have some kind of a proxy by public opinion. And the proxy is media images at this time.

JOHN WHYTE: Let's talk about that, and let's address the elephant in the room and what could be the politics behind it -- whether it's right or wrong. So what do you say to people that are criticizing, especially the news media, that it's too much about the president, it's too much about Mr. Trump and the response and we're not focused on the real issues? Is that a valid criticism? Or is it just not right?

VISH VISHWANATH: Yeah. So I would word it somewhat differently. I think what we need to think about is it's not that the media are not focusing on real issues -- they are -- but it's a question of emphasis. Do they need to focus on every statement being made by the President of the United States? Because that's what we are doing. It's kind of a breathless coverage of every statement, every tweet, every utterance by him.

I think it's a question of how much space or bandwidth that takes up and masks the actual reporting they're doing. It's not that they're not reporting on real issues, but it's just that it is being overwhelmed by this kind of a every statement and every utterance and every tweet of the president -- particularly what happens, John, from a consumer perspective when the president tweets something, and that is very religiously covered by the media. And then he changes his mind and tweets something else, that, too, is covered by the media. It creates a sense of confusion among people.

So while the reporting is factual, I think the unintentional effect is does it take attention away from some of these other issues that require attention? Because we only have a defined bandwidth to pay attention. JOHN WHYTE: You focus a lot about health inequities in health communication. So where are we seeing inequity in the coronavirus and information to different populations?

VISH VISHWANATH: Right. So if somebody asked me what keeps me up in the night, it is for sure equity. I don't think we are discussing enough-- there are some great stories in corners of the mainstream press -- but I don't think we have put a explicitly equity lens to everything we are doing on the coronavirus. That's what keeps me awake in the night.

Because if you think about it, the immediate consequences, as well as the long term consequences, of this October 19 crisis will be felt by people who are less well off -- whether it is racial or ethnic minorities, whether it is blue collar workers, whether it is daily wage laborers. And I don't think we are paying sufficient attention to it. There are some good stories coming out, but unfortunately, that is not enough. We really need much more.

JOHN WHYTE: What do we need?

VISH VISHWANATH: John, you know I talked about this at the Discovery talk and a number of my papers. I have drawn attention to the issue of communication inequalities on a digital divide repeatedly. I was not always taken seriously by some people, because they thought cell phones would solve all the problems, the Internet has penetrated widely.

Now suddenly, we are discovering that there are pockets in the U.S. in mainstream cities and rural areas which don't have computers, don't have digital access. And now we are beginning to at least raise that issue. But this has always been a case in the US.

JOHN WHYTE: Yeah, we talked about that, as you said, a decade ago, where the issue -- and we're seeing it now about kids are at home, and how do they have access to the internet to learn? But I wanted to ask you, given we're running on time, is people have been saying we have an infodemic. You kind of talked about this saturation. So what advice can you give listeners as to where do they go to get their information? And how do they know it's a trusted source?

VISH VISHWANATH: Right. I think that's arguably the most fundamental question right now, in my view. So here are a few pieces of advice:

JOHN WHYTE: Give me Vish's tips -- Vish's tips.

VISH VISHWANATH: All of us -- I am trying it, I make no claims about orginality. This is what I'm thinking. Number one, don't pay attention to daily developments of science reporting. Because science -- knowledge is always partial. Scientific findings change all the time-- sometimes in days, in weeks, months on a case, especially in an emerging crisis like this where data are only partially available and emerging every day. Don't worry about every scientific development, number one.

That's not relevant to you, right? Most scientific developments day in and day out are not relevant to you. Why is relevant to you is actionable information. There are a few reliable sites that are providing a good summary of actionable information -- whether it is CDC, the World Health Organization, your local department of public health, your work place. They are drawing from somewhat similar places in a cogent, pithy way, what can you do? That's all you need to know. What can you do in your day to day life? That's two.

Third -- don't be finger-happy, just like being trigger-happy. I think getting on social media, forwarding everything you see indiscriminately is also contributing to the crisis I think. You, as a consumer, also bear some responsibility by not forwarding everything. In fact, it is not a bad idea to step away from social media for a few hours a day, because it's not going to add anything to you.

If you want to use social media, just stay in touch with people, say hello to them, say hello to the loved ones, but stop there, but don't forward it. These are the few things that can keep us sane.

JOHN WHYTE: Well, those are great tips. And I want to thank you, Doctor Vishwanath for taking the time to talk with us today.

VISH VISHWANATH: Thank you so much for having me.

JOHN WHYTE: And I want to thank our viewers for watching Coronavirus in Context. I'm Dr. John Whyte.