Reporting on Coronavirus: Framing the Story
Published April 2020
We are living through an unprecedented time and our audiences are dealing with information overload. We must rethink how we deliver news, ensuring audiences receive what they need efficiently and easily. The guidance below focuses on understanding the news consumption habits of your audience so you can responsibly frame stories about the COVID-19 pandemic.
Build stories assuming your audience has never seen your coverage before.
When it seemed like entire communities read the newspaper every day, you could reasonably assume many individuals were up to date on the latest developments of any major story. Today, many audiences get news via a mix of scanning headlines, gleaning news from social media,1 and reading in-depth stories, and 37% of Americans say2 they mostly bump into news and information, rather than actively seek it out. Some Americans actively avoid the news at times, too.3
You must assume every member of your audience is coming to every story confused by what’s going on — because many will be. Don’t worry about over-explaining or “dumbing it down;” your audience will appreciate being well-informed about this constantly-developing, overwhelming story. It may seem repetitive to you, but it isn’t to the average, non-news-obsessed reader.
- Create sidebars, call-outs, and break-out boxes that reference previous coverage on each new story rather than relying on linking — readers are less likely to see links when viewed on mobile devices.4
- When updating stories, use subheadings, text formatting, and bullets to highlight the new information, or to reference past coverage.
- Build catch-all pages that link to your live coverage, side stories, glossaries, audience call-outs, and any other relevant info.
- Post links to updates in older, still-circulating
Facebook posts, and thread new updates on Twitter posts. (Or better yet, delete Tweets and edit Facebook posts with old information to keep misinformation from spreading.)
Create a glossary, and reference it frequently in stories.
Stories about the coronavirus pandemic are full of medical jargon and terms with fluid definitions. Do not take understanding of these terms for granted. Create a glossary to explain each one, ideally as a sidebar or annotation but at the very least as a link in all of your stories about the pandemic, in addition to its own page or post. Many audience members will visit your stories through a link on social media, and may need to quickly reference definitions they are unfamiliar with or may never come across a standalone glossary at all.
Most importantly, explain the decision-making behind these choices. For example: “The CDC defines coronavirus as…,” or “We’ve decided to use COVID-19 on first reference, but will use ‘coronavirus’ after that.” Transparency builds trust.5
Write headlines like they’re all your audience will see. (Because that’s often true.)
During a pandemic in which misinformation can spread rapidly, it is not enough to craft headlines that “tease” the rest of a story, or are devoid of full context. You must assume that your average audience member is experiencing your coverage solely through headlines — because they very well may be.6 This is also true of social posts, so be mindful of accompanying text. (Note: folks who scan social for news snippets tend to be overly confident in their knowledge of that story.7)
This is of particular concern with headlines that feature misleading quotes. If a reader does not read the story, or if the headline does not provide context that the quote is misleading, they may be left with the wrong impression. Research has shown that misleading headlines impair a reader’s ability to recall the actual details of an article.8 If your headline is solely a quoted or paraphrased falsehood from a public figure, that’s not news, it’s just misinformation.
For example, the story below is about one man’s mild experience with coronavirus, but the headline and tweet irresponsibly juxtapose it with just the word “coronavirus” as if it is mild for everyone. We know it is not. Sure, you could argue that this headline is technically accurate for the story, but again: few may read it!
Coronavirus: ‘I’ve had worse flu, without a doubt’ https://t.co/HyIxVAeDfr
— BBC News (UK) (@BBCNews) March 12, 2020
Another poor example: don’t turn life-saving information into click-bait, which the Wall Street Journal headline below does. The answer is “All evidence points to coronavirus, by a long shot,” and readers deserve to get that information now, not upon click-through.