Taking a deep breath: the media and COVID-19

It would be fair to argue that the COVID-19 pandemic is dominating every thought, action and conversation at the moment. Frankly it is inescapable. It is scary to observe as everyday people with family, friends and partners to worry about. It is rare that a situation is affecting so many people at the same time, and the uncertainty of this is reflected in how the media is covering the unstoppable and increasingly urgent news agenda.

From a PR perspective, it is fascinating to observe how media outlets are managing the sheer number of headlines, having to constantly prioritise and shuffle the top news as the situation progresses. On a typical day, national news outlets will usually place two or three key stories at the top of the website. To put the current crisis in perspective, The Guardian currently has 25. We can only begin to imagine the pressure on reporters to stay on top of the headlines and developments around the world. There just isn’t the time to fully interpret the avalanche of information before filing a story.

Just a few weeks ago, the media were criticised for spurring on the rapid spurt of panic-buying in supermarkets and shops across the country, creating an ongoing shortage of basic items such as toilet paper, flour and eggs for those most in need. Readers were presented with scary images of almost completely empty shelves, creating worries in everyone’s heads that there simply is not enough to go around at the moment, and encouraging more people to buy in bulk as a consequence.

It begs a wider question on the role that the media plays in crises such as this: are they the catalysts or observers of a situation that had already got out of hand? Reporters have a duty to write about the issues affecting the country to keep people informed, but at what point does this contribute to the worsening of the problem?

Additionally, we should consider the role that we all play on social media. In a similar vein, are we worsening the problem by tweeting about our frustrations when we can’t buy a tin of beans or moaning on Instagram stories when our favourite teabags have run out in the local supermarket? It is incredibly likely.

There is also the potential to spread fake news and cause further panic if we’re not looking carefully at the posts we see on social media and checking the sources of information. One post for example went viral after claiming that our stomach acid could help to kill the coronavirus if we drink enough water, or by inhaling hot air from a hairdryer, both of which are unhelpful and dangerous pointers to be sharing with others.

Therefore, it is unfair to lay all blame with the traditional media. We have the choice not to torture ourselves by reading every panic-inducing headline or sharing every scary tweet we see on our feeds. We all have a responsibility to do what we can to help others in these uncertain times, remain calm and take the most sensationalist headlines with a pinch of salt where possible.

The truth is that bad news still sells, but it is up to us how much we take on those feelings of panic and fear and share them with others.