How Reporters Can Cover the Coronavirus Outbreak Responsibly, According to Richard Engel and Dr. Jennifer Ashton

The NBC News reporter and ABC News medical correspondent have advice for bringing context – instead of panic – to news stories.

Last Updated: March 13, 2020 @ 11:57 AM

President Donald Trump has blamed the media for hyping the coronavirus threat and shared his own “hunch” that it’s less dire than the news stories suggest, even as companies limit employee travel and events are cancelled nationally. What can the media do to cover the sickness responsibly and as accurately as possible, despite any mixed messages flying around? ABC News’ Dr. Jen Ashton and NBC News’ Richard Engel have some advice.

“Words matter, and acknowledging emotion matters,” Ashton, ABC News’ chief medical correspondent, told TheWrap. “In situations where there is concern and anxiety over personal health, information is usually absorbed better if people are more at ease when they hear it. Also, sometimes saying what we don’t know, is as or more important as saying what we do know. Both journalists and doctors generally like to share what is known; this is a story where much is unknown, and I think many people showed they were not comfortable with that.”

Engel, NBC News’ chief foreign correspondent, who has been traveling the world to learn about the threat, has similar advice: “The important thing for journalists to do is convey the best information we can, put it into context, and avoid causing both panic and complacency. Don’t forget you are not a public health official. Don’t try to give out medical advice.”

Friday, from 9 p.m. ET to 11 p.m. ET, ABC News is airing a special two-hour edition of “20/20” titled, “Outbreak: What You Need to Know.” Sunday’s “On Assignment” airs at 10 p.m., also, and features Engel talking to doctors and researchers as well as touring a Singaporean lab studying bats to find a coronavirus cure. Other outlets, too, are hearing the calls for more information: Time launched a daily newsletter to help readers keep up with every new coronavirus development, for instance.

Also on Friday, NBC News’ is airing a special in-depth episode of “NBC Nightly News With Lester Holt: Separating Fact and Fear.” A majority of the half-hour show will be dedicated to reporting on the coronavirus and its global impact. The special airs at 6:30 p.m. ET.

So, what do you need to know?

“We don’t know how bad it will get,” said Engel. “Some of the top virologists I spoke to for NBC News in four different countries told me they know it is spreading. They know it’s contagious. They know it is not an ‘end of days’ event. But they don’t know how many people will be infected and they don’t know how many people will die. The overall mortality rate, according to the WHO, is 3.4%, but the number is somewhat misleading because the lethality of the disease depends a lot on who gets it, with older people with pre-existing health conditions up to 10 times more likely to be killed.”

Ashton advises the average person to “take this seriously” and implement “the same behaviors or practices that we know are important to lower the risk of getting sick with influenza or any other respiratory virus”: Wash your hands. Don’t touch your face. Cover your nose and mouth if coughing or sneezing. Stay home if you’re sick.

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