Coping with COVID-19 news fatigue
Media coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic, continuing full blast for more than half the year by July, seems to have hit a bump. There are indications that people are getting tired of the daily diet of coronavirus stories.
All over the world, in different languages, media continue to play up the pandemic. Leading newspapers and broadcast media as well as social media continue to highlight COVID-19 news as infections and deaths rise.
The urgent messages: People are sick and dying. Wear masks, wash hands, keep your physical distance, and avoid crowds, or the virus will get you.
Yet, the pandemic keeps surging. The number of infections and deaths keep rising in country after country, from South Africa to South America.
Is news fatigue settling in? I can tell that the pandemic is getting worse at the moment in the US and the rest of Asia compared to when it reached the US six months ago from China. But are people still listening to health experts’ advice? Are they reacting to the messages? But why is the pandemic still surging? Are people tired of hearing the same messages day in and day out?
My feeling is that while we are not there yet, we are close to COVID-19 news fatigue. News fatigue is not new. Bad news leaves people feeling depressed and powerless; viewers feel they cannot influence events and so they reject it.
And if news fatigue increases, what does this interest drop-off mean for communication strategies to control the virus? It means a need to reshape our strategies to fight the fatigue.
The pandemic is worsening because there is no consistent policy being followed to fight it. There are conflicting voices of advice — one coming from scientists and the other coming from politicians, like Donald Trump in the US and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro. These politicians have undercut the credibility of their scientists, so people get confused.
Listen to scientists. So, how do you break down public resistance to experts’ advice to control a pandemic? The answer: Listen to the scientists and speak with one voice. Use coercion as a last resort, if needed.
Democratic Western countries led by the US might learn a painful lesson or two about speaking with one voice from authoritarian China, whose anti-COVID-19 campaign is succeeding. Peixin Cao, professor and vice dean of the School of Journalism at the Communication University of China in Beijing, told SciDev.Net: “The government took a brand-new campaign measure (copied from the West) that had never been implemented before (in China), namely (surprise, surprise!) regular press conferences. The most effective strategy is giving information through state media. My observation is that (in China) people just follow the guidance of the government, willingly or unwillingly.”
To which a journalist from Wuhan, Zhu Ling, added in another interview with SciDev.Net: “The main reason could be the CPC’s (Communist Party of China) communication strategy on COVID-19 that all media shall follow the central ideology.”
Poynter Report advises media not to stop covering COVID-19 even if people are starting to get tired of the unrelenting coverage. Coronavirus news fatigue may be setting in, but it’s more important than ever for journalists to publish news and updates, until the pandemic is kicked. No matter how painful, we must face it until the end.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organization has advice for those affected by the flood of negative COVID-19 news: “Minimize watching, reading, or listening to news about COVID-19 that causes distress; seek information only from trusted sources. Get the facts, not rumors and misinformation. Facts can help minimize fears.”
Easier said than done, of course, but we must do it.
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Crispin C. Maslog, a former journalist with Agence France-Presse, is an environmental activist and a former science journalism professor at Silliman University and University of the Philippines-Los Baños. He is a founding member and now board chair of the Asian Media Information and Communication Centre, Manila.
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