News media tend to focus on the sensational. However, Nepal’s press has relatively been balanced and factual in covering the COVID-19 pandemic.
Prof. Dr. Shyam P Lohani
Rumor travels faster than facts. Negative news spreads faster than positive ones. Recently, the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has given rise to numerous myths and rumors. Fake news on the coronavirus has created panic among people worldwide. We are in a rare circumstance where our thinking has been inundated with the threat of the disease for quite some time now.
Our attention, nowadays, is primarily directed toward the genuine threat of being ill with the coronavirus. Since the past seven months or so, almost every news outlet has incessantly covered the pandemic, and radio and TV stations have offered constant updates on the number of infected and the dead. Social media platforms are flooded with the ever-increasing statistics; sometimes they do provide affirmative advice but they also carry myths and falsehoods about the pandemic.
Social media usage has increased exponentially over the years due to the increased reach and availability of the internet. With excessive use of this medium, some individuals are showing symptoms of addictive disorders. Indeed, over the last decade, browsing or surfing social media has become an increasingly popular activity. Sure, the social media use habits of the majority of people remains non-problematic. However, a small percentage among the surfers are clearly compulsive users. For them, the mere desire to use these media often supersedes the need to seek quality information online.
Many countries have already been affected by the coronavirus and the hotspots of the pandemic continue to shift from one place to another. At this time, we are helplessly watching the headlines and wondering about the future. The uncertainties surrounding the pandemic have caused tremendous pressure on our daily lives.
The way news is presented and the way we access it has undergone a paradigm shift in the last two decades. The trend is to pick up one sensational issue after another, without proper fact-check, and to continuously bombard with negative impressions. These changes mostly have detrimental effects on general mental health.
There are many issues that are associated with negative emotions like war, crime, violence, famine, political unrest, toxic leaks, and pandemics, to name a few. The news agencies trade on topics like these by emotionalizing and even sensationalizing them. They tend to emphasize negative outcomes even when those events may be associated with only a few risks.
It has been found that the negative news gets a greater number of audiences than positive news and most of the media outlets package their news accordingly. The news itself may not be infectious or contagious but it is often difficult to predict the effects it causes on the human brain and emotion. And the same news may cause different effects on different people. However, negative news has a great impact on the emotion of vulnerable people. Once’s predisposition to vulnerability largely depends on his or her socio-economic background, upbringing, culture or religion.
Rumors on health-related topics are repeated as facts even though many of such falsehoods can be found out via diligent internet search. People often don’t spare their time to check the facts. Health-related myths are difficult to forget, especially if they have been around for quite some time. Many sites prey on vulnerable populations. People who fall for a false promise of a quick, easy cure or to an alternative recommendation (as opposed to a medically-established advice) are more susceptible to such a ploy.
The COVID-19 pandemic has emerged as the health crisis of our generation and it will inevitably leave a lasting mark on how we deal with other pandemics in the future. The mass media, including newspapers, radio, television and social media throughout the world continue to focus more on the depressing aspects of the crisis. Moreover, the natural negative bias of human brain also constantly seeks news that is violent, dangerous, and threatening. The immediate as well as the ultimate result is fear, stress, and anxiety—not always directly related to the news content but nonetheless the result of the psychological predisposition to those stressors that are in the news.
It’s journalists’ responsibility to report factually. News professionals should remember that sensational news has a negative influence on the general public’s mind. News that causes panic/havoc among the public should not be emphasized. It is crucial, especially during a pandemic, to abide by the code of ethics and to produce only factual news, balanced with informed opinion.
The clarity of information is extremely important from the outset. The writer or reporter should be clear about what he or she already knows, is doing, and is looking for or expecting to find. It is also equally important to be clear about what he/she does not know, and when he/she may find the answers. Moreover, effective communication during difficult times requires empathy, which comes from understanding the needs and the mindset of the audiences.
In my own observation, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Nepali media, especially the print outlets, have relatively been balanced and factual. They successfully helped to uncover several stories, forcing the needed improvements, for example in status of quarantine in different parts of the border areas, difficulties in getting PCR tests done at different government institutions, and the struggles of infected people receiving or in need of medical care. At the same time, the media outlets have also reported on individuals who defeated COVID-19. Such stories have inspired thousands who are infected or others who may be infected in the future.
However, I still see the need of improvement in the media contents, in terms of basic scientific aspects. This could be achieved by medically reviewing the articles prior to their publication.
We still know very little about the future course of the coronavirus pandemic and we also do not know how deeply we will be affected or how bad the situation might turn out to be. However, it is vital to stay tuned about the situation of our community so that we can practice preventive measures in order to slow the spread of the virus. Let us hope that our media will continue to play a sensible role in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic in the days ahead.
The writer is a founder and the academic director, Nobel College. He is a regular columnist on health issues. He can be reached at [email protected].