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 social 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. At the time of this writing on 29 July 2020, the following countries topped the list of COVID-19 infections: Source: Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University
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 does the pandemic keep coming?
Are people tired of hearing the same messages day in and day out? Are they paralysed with fear and too much information? Is news fatigue settling in? We asked a few experts for their opinion.
The first person I approached came back with a retort that blew me away: "Sorry I am having some kind of information fatigue, period. Not participating in any such exercise anymore. Good luck in your survey." There seemed to be a hint of irritation and desperation in his reply. The respondent, an Asian sociologist and communications professor emeritus, prefers to remain anonymous.
How about the others? Do they think people are now losing interest and getting tired of reading and listening to pandemic news? Random replies from some experts:
1. No. In the US people are not tired of hearing the same message. It is that they are confused. John Lent, retired American mass communications professor.
2. Yes. Tired but the information is very important to self and family. So, whether you like it or not, you have to listen to it. Syed Arabi Bin Syed, Malaysian communications professor.
3. No. People realise there is a need to be regularly updated. However, they have become more anxious. Ramon Tuazon, Asian UNESCO consultant.
4. Yes. I have stopped listening. Lockdowns make prisoners of us all. Gino Ables, retired Filipino development communication professor.
My feeling is that we are not there yet but close to COVID-19 news fatigue, as the pandemic continues to worsen. News fatigue is not new. Bad news leaves people feeling depressed and powerless — viewers feel they cannot influence events and so they reject it.
This concept has been discussed in the media before and in institutions like Nieman Foundation, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and WHO since March when the COVID-19 news phenomenon flared up.
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 top politicians have undercut the credibility of their scientists. So, people get confused.
The other reason for this communication hiccup in regard to the pandemic in the US is the independent-mindedness of Americans who value their individual freedoms to a fault. They refuse to listen to advice telling them to wear masks, avoid crowds, keep social distance, wash their hands. None of your business, they say.
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. Some countries and US states are now mandating the wearing of masks.
Democratic Western countries led by the US might learn a painful lesson or two about speaking with one voice from authoritarian China where their anti-COVID-19 campaign is succeeding. Peixin Cao, professor and vice-dean, School of Journalism, Communication University of China, Beijing tells 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."
Peixin Cao, Professor and Vice-Dean, School of Journalism, Communication University of China
To which a journalist from Wuhan, Zhu Ling, adds 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."
Coping with news fatigue
Coping with boredom while under quarantine is an issue in the slum sectors of society where you live in cramped rooms. But for the middle class this should be no problem: one can read or watch television in between leisurely walks in the park. I keep myself busy with work mostly online: writing my science columns and books.
In the meantime, Poynter Report advises media not to stop covering COVID-19 even if people are starting to get tired of it. Coronavirus news fatigue may be setting in, but it's more important than ever for journalists to publish this news until the pandemic is kicked. No matter how painful we must face it until the end.
Meanwhile, WHO has advice for those affected by the flood of negative COVID-19 news. "Minimise watching, reading or listening to news about COVID-19 that causes distress; seek information only from trusted sources. Get the facts; not rumours and misinformation. Facts can help minimize fears."
Easier said than done, of course, but we must do it.