We are living through an unprecedented time and our audiences are dealing with information overload. We must rethink how we deliver news, ensuring audiences receive what they need without overwhelming them. The guidance below focuses on understanding the news consumption habits of your audience so you can responsibly frame each story and use the clearest messaging possible. The coronavirus pandemic is a complex story, and it’s more important than ever that our reporting is efficient and comprehensible.
This is a living and learning document that will be updated frequently with advice and guidance from around the web, and we want you to contribute.
If your newsroom:
- Has developed a style guide to covering the coronavirus and you’re willing to share it with other newsrooms
- Is currently debating the use of any coronavirus-related terms that you want guidance on
Email Aubrey Nagle at email@example.com.
- Build stories and pages assuming your audience has never seen your coverage before
- Create a glossary, and reference it frequently in stories
- Write headlines like they’re all your audience will see
- Choose photos like audiences will not see the caption
- Don’t imply action taken to prevent spread is fear-based if it’s logic or guidance-based
- Don’t turn tracking coronavirus cases into horse-race coverage
Build stories and pages assuming your audience has never seen your coverage before.
When it seemed like entire communities read the newspaper every day, you could maybe reasonably assume individuals were up to date on the latest developments of any major story. Today, many audiences get news by scanning headlines, gleaning news from social media,1 and reading in-depth stories, and 37% of Americans say2 they mostly bump into news and information, rather than actively seek it out. Some Americans actively avoid the news at times, too.3
You must assume every member of your audience is coming to every story a) with no/little knowledge of or b) are confused by what’s going on — because many will be. Don’t worry about over-explaining or “dumbing it down;” your audience will appreciate being well-informed about this constantly-developing, overwhelming story. It may sound repetitive to you, but it isn’t to the average, non-news-obsessed reader.
Ways to help
- Create sidebars, call-outs, and break-out boxes that reference all previous coverage on each new story rather than relying on linking — readers are less likely to see links4 when they’re viewing on mobile.
- When updating stories, use subheadings, text formatting, and bullets to highlight the new information, or to reference past coverage.
- Build catch-all pages that link to your live coverage, side stories, glossaries, audience call-outs, and any other relevant info.
- Post links to updates in older, still-circulating Facebook posts, and thread new updates on Twitter posts. (Or better yet, delete Tweets with old, inaccurate information to keep misinformation from spreading.)
As cases spread and more communities are affected, expect new visitors to your site that are just tuning into the latest COVID-19 updates. Consider creating a “Start Here” article page that explains:
- The basics of the virus: its symptoms and how it spreads
- What to do if you experience symptoms
- How to protect yourself
- How many people are confirmed to have contracted the virus in your community
- What preventative measures local authorities are taking
- What access to essentials like food and medicine is available in your region
- Any support in place for workers and businesses that will be impacted
Create a glossary, and reference it frequently in stories.
Stories about the coronavirus pandemic are full of medical jargon and terms with fluid definitions. Do not take your audience’s understanding of these terms for granted. Create a glossary to explain each one, ideally as a sidebar or annotation but at the very least a link in all of your stories about the pandemic, in addition to its own page or post. Many audience members will visit your stories through a link on social media, and may need to quickly reference definitions they are unfamiliar with or may never come across a standalone glossary at all.
Most importantly, you must explain the decision-making behind these choices. For example: “The CDC defines coronavirus as…,” or “We’ve decided to use COVID-19 on first reference, but will use ‘coronavirus’ after that.” Transparency builds trust, friends.5
Jargon To Regularly Gloss
These are tricky, as some are very similar. Learning a definition once doesn’t ensure memorization.
- The new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, and the disease it causes, COVID-19
- Quarantine, isolation, and social distancing
- Stay-at-home order
- Epidemic and pandemic
- Community spread/transmission
- Flattening the curve
Write headlines like they’re all your audience will see. (Because that’s often true.)
During a pandemic in which misinformation can spread rapidly, it is not enough to craft headlines that “tease” the rest of a story, or are devoid of full context. You must assume that your average audience member is experiencing your coverage solely through headlines — because they very well may be.6 This is also true of social posts, so be mindful of accompanying text. (Related: folks who scan social for news snippets tend to be overly confident in their knowledge.7)
This is of particular concern with headlines that feature a quote, especially those that are misleading. If a reader does not read the story, or if the headline does not provide context that the quote is misleading, they may be left with the wrong impression. Research has shown that misleading headlines impair a reader’s ability to recall the details of an article.8 If your headline is solely a quoted or paraphrased falsehood from a public figure, that’s not news, it’s just misinformation.
For example, the story below is about one man’s mild experience with coronavirus, but the headline and tweet irresponsibly juxtapose it with just the word “coronavirus” as if it is mild for everyone. We know it is not. Sure, you could argue that this headline is technically accurate for the story, but again: few may read it!
Another example: don’t turn life-saving information into click-bait, which the Wall Street Journal headline below does. The answer is “All evidence points to coronavirus, by a long shot,” and readers deserve to get that information now, not upon click-through.
Choose photos like AUDIENCES will not SEE the caption. (Because they may not.)
Photo captions are necessary to explain the exact context of when and where a photo was taken. But, thanks to information overload, you cannot assume audiences are pausing to read them.9 On social media, where many get their news, they may not even see them. You must base all photo choices on what audiences will assume from the photo alone.
That means avoiding the following as stock photos standing in as general symbols of the pandemic:
- People in or from Asian countries or communities (like local Chinatowns), which serves to stigmatize those groups and stoke xenophobia. (See AAJA’s guidance on coronavirus coverage.)
- Emptied grocery store shelves. Out-of-context shots of an empty bread shelf may scare audiences into thinking food and other essentials are scarce in their community when they’re not. (Even under shutdown, many grocery stores remain open and stocked.)
Additionally, consider not using the same stock photo for multiple stories (especially that illustrated coronavirus everyone is using!) because readers could go “blind” to it and assume they have already read that story, a la banner ad blindness.10
Don’t imply action taken to prevent spread is fear-based if it is logic- or guidance-based.
H/T to Emily Withrow for this tip. Across the U.S. many businesses and schools have closed temporarily and events are being cancelled. But writing that they are doing so “amid fears of the coronavirus” and the like is problematic. The word “fear” makes it sound like organizations are making decisions based on panic or emotion, when really they are making decisions based on best practices, government guidance, and rational efforts to slow the spread of infection. This should be reflected in your copy.
Use “due to coronavirus” wisely: if you’re talking about something smaller or community-based, readers may assume someone involved has coronavirus when that may not be the case.
Alternatives to Consider
- “Closed amid coronavirus spread”
- “Closing to help encourage social distancing”
- “Cancelled to deter close social contact amid coronavirus outbreak”
- “Open despite coronavirus outbreak”
Don’t turn tracking CONFIRMED CASES into horse-race coverage
Reporting on the number of people in any given community that have contracted coronavirus without providing context risks turning important updates into horse-race coverage. When discussing people with (whether confirmed or presumptive) coronavirus in your community, emphasize that these are only the known cases. Testing of coronavirus in the U.S. lags dramatically behind other countries and is inconsistent across the country.
It is likely simply inaccurate to suggest that people who have tested positive in your community are the only ones who have contracted the virus. (As one Johns Hopkins University professor put it, “There are probably 25 to 50 people who have the virus for every one person who is confirmed.”11) It is not difficult to imagine audiences would assume confirmed cases are the only ones, which may offer false hope that they are less at risk than harder-hit communities.
Additionally, updates on the number of people with coronavirus should emphasize the following:
- That based on everything we know about how it is spread by both symptomatic and asymptomatic people12 and the rate of testing in the U.S.13, this is not a perfect signal for how widespread the coronavirus is in your community.
- How that number has changed since the last time you provided an update.
- How many others in the region in question are being tested for coronavirus.
- The significance to the community at large. Are the families of coworkers of a newly confirmed case self-isolating? Have multiple people contracted the coronavirus from a shared space, like a conference or church?
- How the number of reported cases is expected to rise, and where those expectations come from (increases in testing, experiences in other countries).
Alternatives to “New Cases”
- Newly reported case
- Newly found/discovered
- Known cases
- Cases confirmed thus far
A Note on “Surge” and “Climb”
When reporting an increase in people with COVID-19 in your community, avoid generic terms like “climb,” “surge,” and “rise” in favor of more specific descriptions that explain the rate of change. If confirmed cases have doubled overnight in your community, that’s critical information. Describing it as a “climb” doesn’t paint a precise picture, and may sound scary enough to tune people out.
- Pew Research Center: Americans Are Wary of the Role Social Media Sites Play in Delivering the News
- American Press Institute: How Americans describe their news consumption behaviors
- Reuters Institute: News Avoidance
- Nieman Lab: People read news differently (i.e., worse) on phones than they do on desktop, new research suggests?
- American Press Institute: What Americans know, and don’t, about how journalism works
- American Press Institute: How Americans get their news
- Nieman Lab: A little knowledge is a dangerous thing — no, seriously, it is, according to this new research
- The New Yorker: How Headlines Change the Way We Think
- The Guardian: Skim reading is the new normal. The effect on society is profound | Maryanne Wolf
- Nielsen Norman Group: Banner Blindness Revisited: Users Dodge Ads on Mobile and Desktop
- Yahoo Finance: ‘Don’t believe the numbers you see’: Johns Hopkins professor says up to 500,000 Americans have coronavirus
- CNN: Infected people without symptoms might be driving the spread of coronavirus more than we realized
- The Atlantic: The 4 Key Reasons the U.S. Is So Behind on Coronavirus Testing