Coronavirus, officially known as COVID- 19, has gripped parts of the world in the last two weeks. The UK government has outlined emergency legislation that could come into effect as early as this month. New cases are being reported daily, and whilst it is the media’s job, including us at The Common Sense Network, to inform the public – is it possible for the public to be provided with too much information? How do we uphold our duty of reliability and sensitivity, and avoid scaremongering?

According to stats by Worldometer at 14:30pm on Sunday 8th March, there have been 107,802 cases of COVID- 19 worldwide, with 3,661 deaths so far – which means that 94% have recovered from this virus across the world.

However, COVID- 19 has hit a bit closer to home, with 273 people testing positive in the UK – this is the UK’s biggest jump in cases. Only 2 people have died as a result in the UK, and they both had underlying health conditions. With the death rate being low both nationally and internationally, you may wonder why many shoppers in the UK have gone into panic-buy mode – and whether this frenzy is justified fear or has come as a result of media coverage.

Twitter user tweets about Tesco in Horsham, UK

You only have to search for #panicbuyers on Twitter to see hundreds of accounts, with pictures of empty shelves in supermarket chains such as Tesco.

Twitter user tweets opinion on the frenzy of panic buying in the UK

Furthermore, hand sanitiser as well as other related hygiene products, have been listed on sites such as eBay for prices as high as £14.99 for 60ml and key retailers such as Boots have limited hand sanitiser purchasing to two per person. This move seeks to limit the case of consumer stockpiling, in order to allow the product to be distributed to all that need it. The NHS have compiled a list of Do’s and Dont’s – advising people to wash your hands with soap and water often – do this for at least 20 seconds to “always wash your hands when you get home or into work,” and to “use hand sanitiser gel if soap and water are not available.” This is why it is vital that the public have access to these products.

Purell hand gel. Source: Flickr

Although, there are many different factors that drive most of the UK’s media outlets, such as competition and political agendas, the media works as a service to the public, providing information that is of and in the public interest. It is important that the public are kept up-to-date with news regarding COVID- 19 – especially those who are most at risk like the elderly and those with respiratory and/or immunodeficiency disorders. However, could the constant coverage have pushed the public to where they are now – clearing off supermarket shelves in panic mode?

Nick Ferrari, presenter of Sky’s The Pledge, opened the programme on the 6th March with the following introduction.

He said: “Meanwhile as schools close, airlines cancel flights and collapse, stock exchange around the globe wobble and stores run out of product such as hand gel and face-masks – the media is under attack for running so-called scare stories. Surely it’s our job to tell you what’s going on, or have we unwittingly added to the chaos?”

This is an extremely tough question to answer – it could be argued that the media have little to no control over how an individual or group of people decide to react to information. Fear is a response often seen in crisis – for example, re-visit the panic that ensued the global pandemic of Swine flu. However, the media is one of, if not the most influential powers in the world – although the debate of whether the media truly influences the public or is simply a mirror of society, is age old.

Panelist Greg Dyke said, “I don’t think the media are exaggerating. In my own life, 5 things that I was supposed to be doing in the next 10 days have been cancelled. I do think that there is a degree of panic going on and I’m not sure whether it’s right or wrong.”

Nick Ferrari went on to ask if the markets have been spooked because of the global news coverage.

Panelist Michelle Dewberry responded; “Yes, and when you look at people’s accommodated share prices, you’re seeing loses and declines in many areas so yes of course it’s impacting the market – but to a central point, is the media fuelling this chaos? Absolutely! What’s missing for me is context. So absolutely the media should be reporting and updating us on what’s going on with Corona, but minute by minute, second by second, tallies of who’s contracted the virus?”

Regular updates could result in people fearing a virus that has a very favourable recovery rate – one that has not yet even been declared a pandemic. However, if the media were to hold back or delay certain information, it is highly likely that we would be accused of deception and not carrying out our duties. The Editor’s Code of Practice states that “the public interest includes, but is not confined to protecting public health or safety,” as well as other points.

It is hard to measure whether the public’s response to recent news is indeed justified or not – especially as we are yet to see if and how COVID- 19 will escalate. However, we as journalists must work to report factually and clearly, without the sensationalism that is inherently dangerous in these circumstances.