Covering COVID-19: Advice and resources for journalists

Covering COVID-19: Advice and resources for journalists

 

Photo of a journalist with a video camera conducting an interview in Sri Lanka

As the flood of news about COVID-19 increases each day, it is imperative for reporters and editors to be able to sift through the information, distinguish between fact and fiction, and convey news in a manner that is appropriate, accurate, and sensitive. We’d like to share the following advice and resources for journalists who are covering the outbreak.

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IREX and our media programs around the world are working to fight misinformation about the coronavirus. The following tips and resources were developed by international media organizations, IREX, and our partners. Much of this guidance appears in Covering COVID-19 (PDF, 602 KB), which was produced by the Media Empowerment for a Democratic Sri Lanka program with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

If you have questions, please write to contact.im@irex.org.

Choosing story ideas

In times like these, one of the significant challenges you will face as a journalist is finding good story ideas. There are millions of story ideas, but which idea will make your story stand out? Here are some guidelines:

  • Talk to primary sources: Primary sources include hospitals, doctors, medical centers, and people who have been treated successfully. They will be able to provide valuable insights on what is happening.
  • Look for leads in a viral story: There are often enough leads in a story that is trending on social media to follow up from a new angle.
  • Listen intently to conversations: Sometimes great story ideas come unexpectedly from a simple conversation with a caregiver, health professional, or administrator.

Selecting sources

With so much information all around us, it is important for journalists to keep their head above the misinformation and fake news that are flooding social media. The safest, most accurate information is available on the websites listed below. Whichever country you are in, make sure you refer to the most authoritative website and the data therein.

The Society of Professional Journalists has listed a few more resources, including:

Caution: Images and maps can still be fake even if they have an official-looking logo from a reputable organization. Bad actors may do this on purpose just to mislead you. Thorough investigation is advised.

Professional associations such as the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ) work to help journalists safely navigate the muddy waters of reporting on a new virus with many unknowns. Tara Haelle, AHCJ's medical studies core topic leader, has written about how journalists should orient themselves amid the flood of scientific papers and preprints about COVID-19 and the coronavirus that causes the disease.

As Haelle notes, coverage of preprints in medical, health, and scientific journalism is growing and has become particularly pronounced during the COVID-19 pandemic. She explains how preprints, the early versions of scientific studies and research papers, differ from peer-reviewed ones, and what journalists reporting on preprints should bear in mind.

Denise-Marie Ordway shares more advice in Covering Biomedical Research Preprints amid the Coronavirus: 6 Things to Know.”

In a webinar hosted by AHCJ, Haelle shared a helpful list of articles for journalists who seek more guidance on navigating scientific papers and preprints:

Verifying facts

 There’s a massive amount of news about the coronavirus online, and much of it is misleading or untrue. Even the mainstream media sometimes repeats unsubstantiated claims.

Here is what you can do:

  • Make sure your facts are airtight. The virus is still new and unpredictable. Make sure authorities endorse what you include in the story.
  • There are not many doctors and researchers who specialize in COVID-19. Make sure the experts you pick up have an impeccable knowledge of the virus and the condition.

Be wary of rumors, unsubstantiated theories, and half-truths. To give you some examples of debunked statements that are circulating, here are a few false claims that you should be aware of:

For more examples, see the World Health Organization’s “Myth Busters” page.

Getting your reporting right

The International Journalists’ Network (a project of the International Center for Journalists), has put together a list of guidelines for journalists who are covering COVID-19. Here are some of their guidelines:

  • Understand the mood on the ground—then translate it into your work: Before you begin writing your report, or even capturing the images, make sure you get the story right on the ground. You can get a sense of this by talking to a cross-section of people on the ground. Research, recheck, and then report.
  • Watch your headlines: Choose headlines that are accurate and not ones that scream for attention or try to mislead. Remember, as journalists, we have to convey the facts precisely and without frills.
  • Remember, not all figures are accurate: In a developing story like COVID-19, data can be inaccurate or misleading. When reporting data, make sure you convey the limitations of the data to your reader. As the data changes, continue updating the story. Clearly mention the date and when the data was collected for the story.
  • Don’t neglect stories that aren’t exciting: Not all stories that you write will be the biggest stories that you will ever write. You will need to look at stories that are not exciting but are very important nevertheless. For example, in this case of COVID-19, you could do a story on the right way to wash hands, and how to do it effectively. It is important not to neglect the smaller stories that answer people’s questions.
  • Set your limits: Your stories will turn out great if you have had the time to do a great story. Don’t take on too many assignments. Sometimes you need to take a step away and return to a story with a fresh perspective. Don’t rush. It is OK to say no for your own sake.

Verifying images and videos

When covering a pandemic like COVID-19, you will come across many images and videos that look authentic and accurate. Do a thorough check. Here are some tools and techniques for verifying images and videos:

Image verification

  • Google Images: Use Google Images to upload the image that you’re trying to verify. Google will show you instances of the image that have appeared on the web before. You can also download a Chrome extension called “Search by Image (by Google).” 
  • RevEyeReverse Image Search: Install this Google Chrome extension in your Chrome browser. This extension allows you to do a reverse image search across different image search engines with one click.
  • TinEye Reverse Image Search: Another image search engine that replicates Google’s reverse image search.
  • Bing Visual Search: A reverse image search site available at bing.com.
  • Yandex.Images: Another image search engine that gives you instances where the same image has been used elsewhere.
  • Jeffrey Friedl’s Image Metadata Viewer: EXIF, or Exchangeable Image File, is the record that a digital camera saves in its photo files. Friedl’s tool can retrieve a photo file’s camera model, lens, aperture, shutter speed, ISO, date, time, and even GPS, if the camera recorded it.

Video verification

  • Fake News Debunker by InVID & WeVerify: This is a Google Chrome extension. It helps you break down a video into key frames, each of which can be used to do a reverse image search to investigate the context of the video.
  • Watch Frame by Frame: This handy tool allows you to watch a video frame by frame. This helps you investigate whether a video has been compromised or digitally altered.
  • YouTube Data Viewer: This tool shows you a video’s upload date, upload time, and other details.

Analyzing maps

Maps can be accidentally or deliberately misleading. For example, an image of air traffic and flight routes around the world was misrepresented as the movement of Wuhan residents from China to other parts of the world. The map not only went viral on social media but was also picked up by some international newspapers.

First Draft has published a map checklist for journalists. These are the questions that journalists should ask themselves when reading a map and the information around it to determine its level of trustworthiness.

  • Have you read the headline, description, legend, source, and any other labels?
  • Who made the map and why? Have you tried to reverse image searching to see if it appeared online before?
  • If the map shows data, what kind of data is the map representing? Where did the data come from and is it reliable?
  • Check the sizes of countries, counties, or anything else. Are they the wrong size or distorted?
  • How was the map designed? Does it use symbols or areas? Are there problems with how the design communicates the story?

Choosing words carefully

  • Don’t add to the panic: Avoid using terms that would exacerbate panic. Remember you are addressing a huge group that is already anxious. Use fewer adjectives and focus more on the details.
  • Use data that accurately describe the situation: Saying “about half of the people in the building were affected” would be less accurate and more alarming than saying “312 people of the thousand in the building were affected,” if the latter statement is true.
  • Chose adjectives carefully: Refrain from using alarming adjectives like “deadly,” “scary,” or “killer.”
  • Be sensitive to those affected: As the World Health Organization advises, don’t refer to those affected as “COVID-19 cases,” “victims,” or “COVID-19 families.” They are “people who are being treated for COVID-19” or “people who are recovering from the infection.” Avoid making them sound like mere statistics.
  • Do a hygiene check for your stories: Run a thorough check for partisan spin, unintended extrapolations, and needless biases. Ask yourself whether you are inadvertently amplifying popular but unsubstantiated theories, unproven statements, or unscientific claims.

Protecting your physical and mental health

With contributions about physical health from IREX's SAFE team and contributions about mental health from Olga Kravtsova.

Physical health

No story is worth your life. While your responsibility is to bring the latest and most authentic news to your readers and viewers, remember that personal safety is paramount.

While interviewing people and visiting sites where you run the risk of infection, stay safe.

  • Be aware of a reporting culture that includes surrounding journalists during interviews, and plan how to negotiate public space accordingly, especially with regard to your physical and medical safety. 
  • Discuss your medical and physical safety with your employer, recognizing that your mental safety is your responsibility. You will not be able to stay calm if there are known factors that could make you vulnerable. For instance, ensure social distancing whenever live coverage is happening.
  • Your equipment can be a source of infection, especially when handled by various people. Take necessary precautions. Do some research on how to physically and medically protect yourself—for example, by disinfecting your equipment regularly.
  • Your close family should understand your vulnerabilities as a journalist, and be prepared for the fact that you might need to self-isolate for two-weeks after having covered places affected by COVID-19. Agree on precautionary measures, such as
    • taking a bath after work and before getting in contact with family members,
    • washing your clothes with JIK, a bleach that has historically been used to manage germs during cholera outbreaks, and
    • disinfecting your door handles when you get home.
  • Be aware of what other messages your body is sending you, such as tightness of your jaw and muscle pains; short rapid breathing; anger, fatigue or feeling easily triggered; sudden changes in eating habits; and burnout. Seek professional help when you notice any of these symptoms.

Mental health

It’s important to maintain your psychological well-being and replenish your inner resources. The journalistic profession exposes you to dangerous and stressful situations. Moreover, many newsrooms have switched to working from home and doing their work online. This changes journalists’ routines and working conditions, potentially exacerbating the stress.

In order to continue your good work, you must take care of yourself. If your reporting sounds panicked or depressed, the tone may alarm your audience. Here are some simple recommendations:

  • Stay equipped with reliable, up-to-date information. Distinguish between what you can and cannot do. Take necessary preventive measures when possible, and help others do the same. Ambiguity can be stressful. Taking appropriate actions will help you maintain your sense of control.
  • Schedule not just your working time, but also your leisure time. Include it in your to-do list and stick to your normal daily routine as much as possible. Set up a working place at home and separate your work from your rest (especially if you're used to working in the office or in the field, and now have to stay at home).
  • When you take a break from work, do it in a physical way. Don’t just switch to reading social media. Get up from your desk, look out the window, find something pleasant to look at, take a deep breath, stretch, turn on energetic music and dance, or take a walk outside if you can.
  • Eat healthy when you can. Many people report that staying at home makes them change their eating habits. It’s hard to refrain from having too many snacks or “eating the stress away.”
  • Get together with your colleagues regularly, as a group, preferably with video. Not only discuss your working tasks, but also share your own stories and emotions, support each other, and cheer each other up. It will maintain your sense of being a team even if you’re located in different places.
  • Even in difficult times, try to see the situation as a challenge and a chance to learn something new. You might frame it as a chance to be creative in setting new tasks and coming up with new solutions.
  • If you feel you need to talk to someone, find a person you trust and discuss your feelings and concerns. Seek professional help if needed. It’s normal to feel stress in a stressful situation.

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