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.

Try This
  • 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!

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.

WSJ headline: Coronavirus vs. Flu: Which Virus is Deadlier?

Choose photos like audiences won’t see the caption. (They may not.)

Photo captions are necessary to explain the exact context of when and where a photo was taken. But, thanks to information overload, you cannot assume audiences are pausing to read them.9 On social media, where many get their news, they may not even be able to see them.  You must base all photo choices on what audiences will assume from the photo alone.

For instance, photos of beach-goers leading stories of COVID-19 spread mislead audiences: research indicates outdoor activities like enjoying the beach are less risky compared to indoor gatherings, like parties and visiting bars.10

A Bloomberg tweet reading "Original hot spots crack down on parties as virus makes a return" with a featured image of an outdoor park with visitors.

Additionally, consider not using the same stock photo for multiple stories (especially that illustrated coronavirus everyone is using!) because readers could go “blind” to it and assume they have already read that story, a la banner ad blindness.11

Don’t imply action taken to prevent spread is fear-based if it is guidance-based.

H/T to Emily Withrow for this tip. Across the U.S. many businesses and schools have closed temporarily and events continue to be cancelled. But writing that they are doing so “amid fears of the coronavirus” and the like is problematic. The word “fear” makes it sound like organizations are making decisions based on panic or emotion, when really they are making decisions based on best practices, government guidance, and rational efforts to slow the spread of infection. This should be reflected in your copy.

Use “due to coronavirus” wisely: if you’re talking about something smaller or community-based, audiences may assume someone involved has coronavirus when that may not be the case.

Try This
  • “Closed amid coronavirus spread”
  • “Closing to help encourage social distancing”
  • “Cancelled to deter close social contact amid coronavirus outbreak”
  • “Open despite coronavirus outbreak”

Be clear about what information will change.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a long-term developing story. Audiences are likely used to breaking news events unfolding in real time and understand that the facts may change over a short period. But the way our knowledge of the coronavirus and its effects has changed for months on end is new for everyone.

We know new evidence will continue to arise and inform public health decision-making, epidemiological models change, and we’re facing more uncertainties than we are answers. But unexplained about-faces in our reporting sow distrust and skepticism in audiences. Thus it’s critical that journalists be up front with their audiences about what information may change in order to retain their trust.12

Provide status updates on those ever-changing categories in a routine way. That may mean a designated spot on your homepage, a permanent URL, a newsletter, or a consistent time slot in your radio or TV report.

Try This

Include caveats and label information you know a) audiences will continue to need and b) will continue to change. That includes:

  • What we know about COVID-19 and its symptoms
  • Available treatments and vaccines
  • Requirements to get tested in their area
  • Social distancing and hygiene guidelines
  • Stay-at-home orders, business closures and travel restrictions