Coronavirus: Media sensationalism?

A number of serious questions are being raised about British media coverage of the COVID-19 crisis.

Has media exaggeration of the risks been responsible for generating social panic and anxiety?

There has been evidence of bulk buying of hand sanitisers and anti-bacterial wipes.

Are journalists doing their duty by earnestly distributing important public interest information or are they over-dramatising what is going on?

1. BBC

Screenshot 2020-03-04 at 11.04.27

Image: Screenshot of BBC News online on 4th March 2020 at 11.04.27

  • Coronavirus has the most space on the website, but other stories are being featured.
  • ‘Death toll’ vocabulary focuses on the fatality of the virus, whereas statistically in 81% of cases people experienced mild or moderate symptoms.
  • It might be argued that the over-emphasis on the more serious situation in Italy is more anxiety inducing than analysing the UK position alone.

Summary: Mild


2. The Guardian

Screenshot 2020-03-04 at 11.04.41

Image: Screenshot of The Guardian online on 4th March 2020 at 11.04.41

  • All news stories featured are related to coronavirus. Readers might not look further down to their other stories, and so will only see the emphasis on the virus.
  • Keywords like ‘disruption’, ‘fears’, ‘growing anger’ are indicative of chaos and threat rather than containment. reactions to readers.
  • The Q&A for coronavirus, which would prove more useful facts for readers is small compared to the hoax claims article that in alarmist in tone.

Summary: Sensationalising


3. The Economist

Screenshot 2020-03-04 at 11.05.42

Image: Screenshot of The Economist online on 4th March 2020 at 11.05.42

  • While coronavirus is mentioned in its main headline, the listing of  its scientific name ‘covid-19’ shows a distanced approach.
  • Since this story is under the category ‘Finance and Economics’, it is not giving coronavirus its own category, unlike the other publishers. Again, this approach diminishes the impact.
  • Overall, the language is not inflammatory.

Summary: Mild


4. The Times

Screenshot 2020-03-04 at 11.05.06

Image: Screenshot of The Times online on 4th March 2020 at 11.05.06

  • Coronavirus has its own category, signifying importance and urgency.
  • The two stories relating to COVID-19 take up half of the homepage, so it signifies importance but not over-reporting on it. Other news stories are not related, showing that there are other events that need to be reported.
  • The article headlined ‘Your life could change’ could cause anxiety particularly if readers are lead to believe their daily routine will be disrupted.

Summary: Mild


5. Metro

Screenshot 2020-03-04 at 11.06.46

Image: Screenshot of Metro online on 4th March 2020 at 11.06.46

  • Again, dominance on the front page, establishing importance and urgency.
  • ‘Already among us’, is anthropomorphising the virus almost like a dangerous killer
  • The quotes from the chief medical officer are not very pacifying to read, and could be anxiety inducing for readers. The lack of guidance on how to identify coronavirus symptoms adds to the alarmist and sensationalising tone.

Summary: Moderate

In summary, this is only a small sample. The trend and tone overall could be perceived as gestating more panic than calm.

When each is considered as individual publications,  they are not anxiety-inducing in themselves. However, due to social media adding more layers and vectors in the scale and speed of media communication, it could be argued this limited sample of ‘mainstream media’ are not operating with enough perspective.

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