How Much Coronavirus News Should You Watch?

How to balance pandemic preparedness and panic.

Posted Mar 08, 2020

Community members preparing for a potential pandemic appreciate that knowledge is power.   But is there too much of a good thing?  Given the widespread fear of the unknown when it comes to understanding a new disease, people question how much information one can consume without losing objectivity and allowing pandemic preparedness to become panic.  

Thankfully, we can learn about healthy responding, both physically and psychologically, by studying the outcomes of public response to pandemics-past.  One of the significant public risks historically associated with the risk of disease, is the risk of unnecessary panic when media representations diverge from medical reality.

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay
Source: Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

Public Information About Pandemics: The Positive Impact of Truthful Information

One of the common themes during times of health crises is the temptation to catastrophize.  Not surprisingly, this phenomenon is sometimes fueled by the media.  William Sherlaw and Jocelyn Raude examined this dynamic in "Why the French Did Not Choose to Panic” (2013).[i]

Studying the response of the French public to the health threat caused by the pandemic A/H1N1 influenza of 2009, the researchers used what they describe as different “theoretical strands such as innovations diffusion theory, surprise theory and social representation theory.”

They note that public health policy, episodes of disease, and the response of the public should be examined within a “larger socio‐cognitive frame incorporating representations anchored by prior disease episodes and campaigns.”  They suggest that in the pandemic they studied, the response of the public was influenced greatly by the “pervasive anchoring of the social representations of the pandemic threat to the 1918 Spanish flu in the lay and scientific media.”

In reality, these representations were eventually discredited, because they were found not to match the disease, which led to a lack of panic by the French public in response to the 2009 pandemic.   Empirical testing revealed that “alarmist framings” of public health threats may backfire, because they could decrease the ability of public health organizations to engage in effective public mobilization to deal with more serious instances of emerging disease.  

In earlier research, Stephen L. Muzzatti wrote about this dynamic in “Bits Of Falling Sky And Global Pandemics” (2005) in connection with the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) health scare.[ii] Acknowledging a dynamic we experience more fully today with the explosion of social media, he notes that whether the topic is politics, crime, celebrities, or public health, “sensationalistic and exploitative coverage is a media staple.”  He notes that the coverage of SARS in 2003 was no exception to this rule.

Muzzatti made the point that moral panic was fueled by information about the contagion that diverged significantly from the medical reality of the condition.  He noted that although the moral panic was (thankfully) short lived, it was widespread.  

Pandemics of Fear Spread Faster Than Disease

Before the explosion of social media, television exposure was linked with higher levels of panic.  Jan Van den Bulck and Kathleen Custers, in “Television Exposure Is Related to Fear of Avian Flu” (2009), studying the possibility of an H5N1 avian influenza outbreak, found television exposure to be highly correlated with worrying about contracting the disease.[iii]  Specifically, they described this concern as a “pandemic of fear,” which they argue can be spread by a more virulent source than a human carrier—the news media. They note that the resulting pandemic fear precedes an actual pandemic, and requires a separate solution.

The authors note that their findings suggest the more television watched, the higher the level of anxiety about health threats such as H5N1, citing prior research on media consumption demonstrating it is almost impossible for people who watch TV to avoid news programming.  They acknowledge other research as consistent in finding increased news exposure linked with increased anxiety about potential health risks.  

Balanced Consumption and Response

Staying healthy in the wake of an outbreak requires smart strategies of information gathering and response.  Acquiring accurate, timely information helps us plan accordingly.  So when selecting news outlets, consider source credibility, as well as areas in which medical advice overlaps with common sense.  Buy as many supplies as you need to sustain yourself and your family—and now go wash your hands.    


[i] Sherlaw, William and Jocelyn Raude. "Why the French Did Not Choose to Panic: A Dynamic Analysis of the Public Response to the Influenza Pandemic." 2013. Sociology of Health and Illness. 35 (2): 332-344. 

[ii] Stephen L. Muzzatti. “Bits Of Falling Sky And Global Pandemics: Moral Panic And Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).” 2005. Crisis & Loss, Vol. 13(2): 117-128.

[iii] Van den Bulck, Jan, and Kathleen Custers. 2009. “Television Exposure Is Related to Fear of Avian Flu, an Ecological Study across 23 Member States of the European Union.” European Journal of Public Health 19 (4): 370–74.