Language Guide

Below is not a comprehensive glossary of the vocabulary of the pandemic, but is instead guidance on particular terms that may make reporting more difficult to navigate. Check out some great glossary examples here.


Though WHO recommends calling the new coronavirus COVID-19, the above phrases are being used instead of the medically accurate terms in order to politicize the pandemic and stir xenophobia.1 They should not be used by news organizations in reference to the coronavirus. Additionally, reporting quotes from public figures which include them should be done with extreme caution. It is not enough to state that a public figure said a xenophobic thing, and let that be a lesson to readers unto itself. Unless the context is explicitly explained, you risk being a conduit for the political messaging associated with it. Such a quote should absolutely never be allowed to stand alone in a headline.

Confirmed, Presumptive, or New cases

This entry refers to reporting on people who have or have had COVID-19 in the aggregate. The World Health Organization generally recommends prioritizing people-first language across communications about COVID-19. See more below.

It’s critical that when discussing people with coronavirus in your community that you 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 the people who have tested positive in your community are the only ones who have COVID-19. (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.”2) It is not difficult to imagine audiences would assume people who are confirmed are the only instances, which may offer false hope that they are less at risk than harder-hit communities. More precise alternatives to terms like “new cases” include:

  • Known cases
  • Newly reported
  • Recently confirmed
  • Cases confirmed thus far

Additionally, mentions of any newly reported cases should include the following:

  1. That based on everything we know about how it is spread by both symptomatic and asymptomatic people3 and the rate of testing in the U.S.4, this is not a perfect signal for how widespread the coronavirus is in your community.
  2. How many others in the region in question are being tested for coronavirus.
  3. The significance to the community at large. Are people in contact with those with confirmed cases self-isolating? Have multiple people contracted the coronavirus from a shared space, like a conference or church?
  4. How the number of reported cases is expected to rise, and where those expectations come from (increases in testing, experiences in other countries).

Without this important contextual information, updates on “new” cases can create fear without understanding. Creating understanding (not horse-race reporting) is critical for audiences to take preventative action.


Using these words to describe any increase in the spread of the coronavirus is effectively meaningless to readers without statistical context, especially in headlines and social posts. They do, however, sound scary and make people feel helpless — a very counterproductive reaction when there are ways every reader can take action to slow the spread of infection. Be specific in your description of how spread has increased and the rate of change — has it doubled or tripled in your community? Increased by X%? Be precise.


Is redundant, yet sounds worse somehow. Stick with “pandemic.” H/T to the Angry Grammarian.


Patients are generally those who receive medical treatment; the connotation of “patient” means many will assume that treatment is at a medical facility or at the hands of a doctor or nurse. Not all people who contract the coronavirus will receive medical treatment, as it appears many cases are mild and may not require such care, and testing is inconsistent. So, be sure you’re using the correct term when referring to someone who has been sickened by the coronavirus. Be as precise as possible (even if it’s wordy!) with alternatives like “person who is being treated for COVID-19” or “person who is being tested.”

People-first language

When reporting on any person who has contracted or is being treated for the coronavirus or COVID-19, use people-first language. People-first language includes terms and phrases that place words like “person” and “people” at the beginning of a descriptive clause, used instead of labels that strip the humanity from the subject in question. The World Health Organization recommends this language (over terms like COVID-19 “cases” “victims” or “suspects”) to prevent the development of social stigma. 5

WHO’s recommended alternatives include:

  • People who have COVID-19
  • People who are being treated for COVID-19
  • People who are recovering from COVID-19
  • People who died after contracting COVID19
  • People who may have COVID-19
  • People who are presumptive for COVID-19


Persons Under Investigation (or PUI) is a medical term for those being tested for or having potentially contracted the coronavirus. You may be compelled to use this terminology due to official information from an institutional source, or because information that would help you be more specific about the people in question isn’t available.

However, “under investigation” and terms like “suspected cases” are criminalizing, implying that the people in question have somehow done something wrong, and are thus stigmatizing. The World Health Organization recommends “people who may have COVID-19” or “people who are presumptive for COVID-19” instead.5

ShutDowns & STay-At-Home Orders

Be sure to lead any story about city or county restrictions with what a shutdown or a stay-at-home order actually means, and what “non-essential businesses” means. While it’s important that audiences understand these preventative measures are taken to slow the spread of the coronavirus, they may be alarmed that their access to essentials like food or medicine or to loved ones will be suddenly cut off. Pack your headlines about this with fear-reducing information whenever possible.

For example, rather than headline a story “Springfield County to shutdown at midnight Monday” consider instead, “Springfield County shutdown: grocery stores, pharmacies to remain open.”

social vs. Physical distancing

“Social distancing” has become the go-to term for deliberately increasing the physical space between people to avoid spreading COVID-19. Much of this has been done by limiting physical social situations, like closing schools and offices. However, the World Health Organization has recently begun using “physical distancing” instead to emphasize that people should maintain their social connections — they should just do it virtually.6

Regardless of which you use, you must define it for your audience. The standards we are all using to slow the spread of COVID-19 are changing all the time. (For instance, some have said any type of distancing requires 3 feet of clearance; others say 6 feet.) So be sure to include an up-to-date definition of this distancing whenever it is referenced. The graphic below by Hybrid UX Research shows a great example of how to be specific with your audience.

Instead of "Practice social distancing" describe what that means: stay at home, get groceries once per week, and stay 6ft away from people.
An example of how to define your use of social or physical distancing for your audience.

Just for Fun


  1. The Hill: WHO official warns against calling it ‘Chinese virus,’ says ‘there is no blame in this’
  2. Yahoo Finance: ‘Don’t believe the numbers you see’: Johns Hopkins professor says up to 500,000 Americans have coronavirus
  3. CNN: Infected people without symptoms might be driving the spread of coronavirus more than we realized
  4. The Atlantic: The 4 Key Reasons the U.S. Is So Behind on Coronavirus Testing
  5. World Health Organization: Social Stigma associated with COVID-19
  6. Al Jazeera: Why ‘physical distancing’ is better than ‘social distancing’

Framing your story ☞