|BRIEF RESEARCH ARTICLE
|Year : 2020 | Volume
| Issue : 6 | Page : 217-220
COVID-19 epidemiology: Through the eyes of vernacular newspapers
BN Mahima1, Hemant Kr Tiwari1, Payel Mahapatra1, Senthil Amudhan2, Girish N Rao3
1 MPH Student, Department of Epidemiology, Centre for Public Health, National Institute of Mental Health and Neuroscience, Bengaluru, Karnataka, India
2 Additional Professor, Department of Epidemiology, Centre for Public Health, National Institute of Mental Health and Neuroscience, Bengaluru, Karnataka, India
3 Professor, Department of Epidemiology, Centre for Public Health, National Institute of Mental Health and Neuroscience, Bengaluru, Karnataka, India
|Date of Submission||29-Apr-2020|
|Date of Decision||09-May-2020|
|Date of Acceptance||10-May-2020|
|Date of Web Publication||2-Jun-2020|
Girish N Rao
Professor of Epidemiology, Centre for Public Health, Room 215, 2nd Floor, Dr. M. V. Govindaswamy Centre, National Institute of Mental Health and Neuroscience, Bengaluru - 560 029, Karnataka
Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None
| Abstract|| |
Media plays an indispensable role in society to influence health literacy. To document COVID-19 coverage in Kannada daily newspapers, hardcopies of 455 editions were methodically reviewed. Content analysis and data coding of 11 of the possible 60 terms/concepts related to COVID-19 epidemiology, was undertaken. Across dailies, five different dimensions in reporting documented: reporting of statistics – both numbers and manner of reporting, reporting of epidemiological concepts/terms (frequency of use and frequency of reporting), focus of reporting, density of reporting and finally what is not reported which could have been reported (desirable reporting). Numbers were reported as headlines; >25% of listed items were covered; however, 20% of terms not covered would have helped. We looked at “News” as epidemiological information and identified the gaps in reporting. We conclude that vernacular print media in Karnataka has done a commendable job. A media communication plan is urgently needed.
Keywords: Content-analysis, coverage, COVID19, epidemiology, newspapers
|How to cite this article:|
Mahima B N, Tiwari HK, Mahapatra P, Amudhan S, Rao GN. COVID-19 epidemiology: Through the eyes of vernacular newspapers. Indian J Public Health 2020;64, Suppl S2:217-20
|How to cite this URL:|
Mahima B N, Tiwari HK, Mahapatra P, Amudhan S, Rao GN. COVID-19 epidemiology: Through the eyes of vernacular newspapers. Indian J Public Health [serial online] 2020 [cited 2022 Aug 19];64, Suppl S2:217-20. Available from: https://www.ijph.in/text.asp?2020/64/6/217/285606
| Introduction|| |
Globally, the rising focus and increasing emphasis on managing COVID-19, its prevention and control are equally unprecedented as the pandemic. The national and international mainstream media capability has been studied during times of crisis and needless to say credible journalism and accountability have been called out. Social media led sensationalism and infodemics are the visible, proverbial tip of iceberg. In this context, considering local vernacular dailies as the last mile connectivity, we have attempted to methodically review Kannada daily newspapers with the key objective of documenting their COVID-19 coverage. With the hypothesis that newspapers are a key information source for the general public, attempt was to decipher epidemiological information from news/features.
| Materials and Methods|| |
Top 5 Kannada dailies (total >2.8 crores average daily readership) reporting COVID-19 was analyzed with cutoff dates being January 26, to April 25, 2020.
Using the principle of collective intelligence and following consensus, all authors identified possible key terms and concepts related to COVID-19 epidemiology and made an exhaustive 60 item list [Box 1]. After discussion, 11 were unanimously agreed to be very important from the community perspective: Awareness, Prevention/Preventive Measures, Quarantine, Hot spot, Sanitation, Testing, Risk factor/Comorbidities, Isolation, High-risk Population, Immunity/Herd immunity, Disease Transmission. These lists formed the basis for our data coding and data entry. This data coding form guided the coder (MBN) in identifying key terms and concepts and coded to reflect sensationalism (defined by emotionality, dichotomous thinking, and richness of vocabulary [short sentences]).
The content analysis checklist [Table 1], adapted from the WHO guidelines for reporting suicide in media included basic media reporting (quantity, focus and prominence of reporting, etc.,) and potentially harmful/helpful reporting characteristics
All items (situation-report, editorial, featured article, etc.) related to COVID-19 were analyzed without exclusion; 91 days × 5 dailies were reviewed and those after the start of the analysis were added prospectively. MBN (bilingual) extracted information in two-stages (descriptive information extraction followed by in-depth content analysis) and HT and PM helped. Quality control checks were adopted (5% random check, regular discussions, etc.,).
| Results|| |
The first reporting of the Corona virus was on January 19, 2020. From here on, across the five different newspapers, we tracked the reporting in 5 different dimensions: reporting of the statistics – both numbers and the manner of reporting, reporting of the epidemiological concepts/terms (frequency of use and frequency of reporting), focus of reporting, density of reporting and finally what is not reported which could have been reported (desirable reporting).
Several “numbers” reported included (i) number of new cases, (ii) total cases, (iii) total deaths, (iv) new deaths, and (v) recovered/discharged or cured. In addition, analysis as related to (vi) Age distribution of the cases and distribution of cases (vii) country wise, (viii) state-wise, (ix) district wise as well as (x) area wise in Bengaluru were reported. Pertinently, for any of the above, the denominators were not mentioned and the very numbers were used as headlines (number of countries or states infected, new cases, new deaths or even total number quarantined). The headlines nonetheless provide the context and manner of communication and show the emotional pitch of reporting.
We were gratified to observe >25% of the listed terms were either covered daily or very frequently [Box 1]. Not surprisingly, the nearly 20% of the terms not covered needs a better understanding of the foundation of health sciences and leads us to infer that the coverage corresponds to what has been understood. This is also reflected in the frequency of at least once daily reporting [Figure 1] and focus of media coverage [Table 1]. The count of COVID-19 related articles on any given day progressively increased over the period of review, and the maximum was 47.
Differences in reporting
Apart from sensationalized news on Corona, newspapers explained some of the key concepts of public health. With rise in cases, one newspaper took a column every-day for myth busting. Of the two newspaper who were part of a large conglomerate with several local vernacular editions across the country, one captured and translated the information for better local flavor. Leveraging on national resources, it presented/defined keywords (pandemic, epidemic, outbreak, antigen, antibody, breaking chain of transmission, quarantine and isolation, etc.,) for laypersons.
| Discussion|| |
Media interprets – collates – processes and transmits News and News is the message. Since January-2020, COVID-19 has been “news.” In India, from an insert in January to headlines in February, COVID-19 coverage continued as a dominant front-page feature in March and critically was the only newsmaker in April. The current study, perhaps the first from India, analyzed media reporting of COVID19 epidemiology from local vernacular dailies.
The underlying message across all the reports was that of a growing health crisis and the heroic steps that are being taken. The numbers which bundle these messages are numbers tested positive for COVID-19, number of deaths, number quarantined, etc., With increasing cases, during the latter days, the unit of reporting began including smaller geographical areas: localities, wards, and villages from Districts and Talukas. Reports of measures taken (thermal-screening, quarantine, isolation, lockdown, social distancing norms, food supplied, etc.,) point toward prevention and control; the reality is reflected in the absence of measures undertaken in areas/localities or in their violation. The latter is a manifest strategy of the fourth estate holding the Public Health administration accountable for its declared policies.
The media reporting included providing supportive information/clarifying concepts: helpline numbers, use of mask, improving immunity, handwashing, etc., The practice or otherwise of social (rather physical) distancing and repeated handwashing gained greater traction and prophylactic use of HCQS, protective effect of BCG, possibility of vaccine, “cheaper” ventilators, plasma therapy, were discussed.
The case study style of media reporting was exemplified by the numerous instances of people helping or being helped at times of crisis. Those helping often were celebrities, including elected representatives-past-present (-future) apart from laypersons.
Another feature was the use of opinion columns to communicate special topics; some of these included: explaining herd immunity, trials, previous pandemics and epidemics in the world, use of hydroxychloroquine.
The purpose of the present communication is not to profess rights and wrongs of print media reporting; rather, the focus was to understand what epidemiological information was being “featured,” explore the possibility of it being expanded to include more complex terms/concepts, list negative aspects that were reported. A key question which was on the top-most of our minds was whether the reporting was “alarmist” or “sensationalized” at any or every stage. We failed to arrive at a specific answer to this particular thought. Against the grain of common sense of media sensationalism, discussions point to the need for hyperboles which goads/prepares public to action (”Anything you say in advance of a pandemic seems alarmist. Anything that you've done after it starts is inadequate,” Governor Mike Leavitt, formerly head of the Department of Health and Human Services, USA, 2005–2009).
The epidemiological characteristics of the COVID-19 are evolving and are complex; while recognizing the need for communicating public health information, what one wants/needs to communicate merely reflects scientific knowledge versus scientific uncertainty. A definitive case in question is debate about the mass testing for asymptomatics but equally so about recommending universal use of mask vis-à-vis the use of mask by those with symptoms. While the logic and rationale are argued, the public in Public health are at best annoyed with differing recommendations. A not-so-out-of-the-box solution is adopting the Public Health classification of illness instead of the microbial categorization of illness.
We have looked at “News” as epidemiological information and identified the gaps in reporting. The pointers from our analysis are what else the media should have covered. These include Surveillance, House-to-house survey, (implications of) randomness, Sensitivity/specificity of the screening test, Attack Rate, Reproduction number (R0), Survival analysis, precise case definitions.
Health journalism is a complex issue which demands a nuanced understanding of scientific knowledge. Media plays an indispensable role in society to influence health literacy and is a crucial link between persons and different societal organs. We realize that “digitization of content, rise of social media and acceleration in mobile consumption have all forced changes to the way media companies monetize content” and therein lies anxiety of clamor for grabbing the attention of the consumer. Despite such and other challenges, a limited answer emanating from our analysis is that the vernacular print media in Karnataka has done a commendable job in raising awareness about COVID-19 transmission.
Swept off the foot, COVID-19 has dominated the media coverage everywhere and so also in Karnataka. As the expected action is focal and local, especially at the time of epidemics and outbreaks, there is an urgent need for a communication plan (which we did not observe), including guidelines for media reporting. It is hoped that an aware media replete with health information for action would have resulted in reduced negative consequences during this time of crisis.
Heartfelt thanks to Dr. Ravindra ASVLN (Senior Medical Officer), Ms. Renuka B R, Mrs. Jayamma, Mrs. Lakshmi, and Mr. Rakshit H M, who assisted during analysis.
Financial support and sponsorship
Conflicts of interest
There are no conflicts of interest.
| References|| |
World Health Organisation. Preventing Suicide: A Resource for Media Professionals. Geneva, Switzerland: International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP), World Health Organization. Dept. of Mental Health and Substance Abuse; 2008.
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