Coronavirus: Language Guide
This guide was last updated in fall 2020.
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 for audiences. Check out some great glossary examples here.
“Chinese,” “foreign” or “Wuhan” virus
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 audiences 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.
The acronym COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, stands for COronaVIrus Disease of 2019. Since it is an acronym, it should always be capitalized in news copy. Though it’s not uncommon for frequently used, pronounceable acronyms to slowly transition to lowercase usage, enforcing capitalization is an implicit reminder that it is an acronym. And that’s important, because public figures have contributed to misinformation that COVID-19 is the “nineteenth” coronavirus in order to place blame on WHO.
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.
Heroes and frontline workers
Labeling essential workers “heroes” allows us to explain away the often unsafe conditions many are being forced to work under and softens our reactions to their deaths by implying they’ve volunteered to be put in harm’s way and that it comes with the territory, so to speak. It glosses over the fact that these deaths are preventable and that people are being irrevocably harmed by countries that failed to prepare themselves adequately for, and have fallen short in their response to, this tragedy.
Similarly, calling essential workers “frontline” workers compares them to soldiers or members of the military, implying they signed up for sacrificing themselves for their country. Many are facing impossible decisions between whether to continue working and put their lives and those of their families at risk or lose their jobs and thus their ability to eat or find shelter. Equating them with soldiers once again softens our reaction to their preventable deaths.
🚩Try this instead: Use “essential workers” and “first responders.” Read more about avoiding the language of war here.
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.
🚩Try this instead: 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.”
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. 2
🚩Try this instead: 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/suspected cases
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 terms, implying that the people in question have somehow done something wrong, and are thus stigmatizing.
🚩Try this instead: The World Health Organization recommends “people who may have COVID-19” or “people who are presumptive for COVID-19.”2
Avoid using the generic term “reopening.” If it must be used, describe what is reopening, or the definition a public figure is using.
The term “reopening” does not, by itself, describe what restrictions are lifted or changed. It could imply that borders, all businesses, or schools are open again, or that social distancing is no longer needed. In reality, in many places this is not the case and won’t be for some time. Remember that audiences may see only a story’s headline or social posts, and it’s possible a headline using “reopen” generically could leave an incorrect impression.
Thanks to the open-closed binary, “reopening” also has a finite quality to it, as if to say the problem is solved and things are “back to normal,” when in all likelihood they are not. A “reopened” restaurant does not guarantee customers, for instance, and stay-at-home orders could return at some point.
Finally, whether a region’s institutions are “reopening” says very little about whether a community is recovering from the pandemic. It does, however, frame this public health emergency in economic terms, which refocuses narratives around capital and obscures the immense social toll.
🚩Try this instead:
- When reporting on businesses or institutions that are literally reopening, be as specific as possible. (Ex.: “Select Georgia businesses to reopen today; social distancing orders still in place” is better than “Georgia reopens Friday.”)
- When examining a region’s efforts to overcome the impact of the pandemic, use words, like “recovery,” that frame the issue in public health terms.
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.
🚩Try this instead: Provide a definition and be specific. (Ex. “Springfield County shutdown: grocery stores, pharmacies to remain open.” is better than “Springfield County to shutdown at midnight Monday.”)
“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.3
There are arguments to be made that neither “social” nor “physical” distancing are clear or nuanced enough to be truly effective. For instance, one might think staying six feet apart while visiting a friend in their home is sufficient for safety, despite guidance for avoiding social engagements outside of your own household.
So, regardless of which you use, continue to define it for your audience. The standards we are all using to slow the spread of COVID-19 are changing all the time. 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.
- The Hill: WHO official warns against calling it ‘Chinese virus,’ says ‘there is no blame in this’
- World Health Organization: Social Stigma associated with COVID-19
- Al Jazeera: Why ‘physical distancing’ is better than ‘social distancing’