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Reading in the Time of COVID-19

U of I experts explain how to read the news in a pandemic in a healthy way

The sheer amount of information and updates surrounding COVID-19 is at the least overwhelming, and at the most a cause of anxiety and fear.

How should someone who wants to stay informed approach the news, blogs and social media in the time of the coronavirus? And what should that coverage look like in the first place? 

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During major upheavals like this, disinformation is dangerous, and overloading on news and social media can be too. And at times like these, journalists have to rely on those institutions and experts while adding nuance to their stories.

Steve Smith, a journalism professor at the University of Idaho in Moscow, said the press should be focusing on fact-based reporting, as always, but should moderate their coverage while still being consistent, thorough and timely.

“There is a public health, a mental health responsibility to not drown people with coverage of the virus,” Smith said about coverage. “I think there’s a danger in drowning people in virus information to the point where they just shut it off.”

Smith said the most important thing journalists can do is report on facts and rely on experts for context, not simply repeat what politicians say.

“What we’re reporting on is negative, it’s scary, it’s potentially devastating, and false hope is the job of politicians,” he said.


Dilshani Sarathchandra, a sociology professor at the University of Idaho, said much of what the media does is influencing “risk perception.”

Risk perception is how people subjectively assess risk, according to Sarathchandra, and it arises from factors including personal experience, familiarity with the risk, trust in information sources, a sense of control and social networks.

“The most fundamental way media alter public risk perception is by the volume and vividness of articles — for example, the higher the volume of coverage, the more likely we are to overestimate risk and vice versa,” Sarathchandra said in an email.

Because people have a tendency to consider themselves less at risk than they do the public in general, the media can change their opinions on the danger the public faces as opposed to the danger they themselves face. But if the media fail to contextualize facts, the public is less likely to act on that information.

Sarathchandra says contextualizing facts and providing stories from people who have dealt with COVID-19 are some of the best ways for the media to help people understand the risks they might face during this prolonged epidemic. But that doesn’t mean people should be gorging themselves on news either.

“Fear and anxiety can sometimes lead to information aversion. In high and novel risk environments like the one we are experiencing currently, some people might be less likely to engage in information due to fear,” Sarathchandra said. But the media can help there too, by offering “actionable items,” things people can do to feel more empowered to protect themselves and their loved ones.

That doesn’t mean they should be locking themselves in a bunker to avoid the disease, but taking caution and acting “very conservatively” to avoid spreading the disease, Sarathchandra said. That can help reduce anxiety and make life more livable.


Jamie Derrick, an associate clinical professor in psychology at the University of Idaho, says the best way to deal with the problems of anxiety and uncertainty is to take “simple, wholesome, self-caring actions.”

In an email exchange, Derrick explained some of the biological reasons why paying close attention to the avalanche of news can be bad for psyche and nervous system.

“Humans are evolutionarily wired to pay close attention to potential threats; This is a survival instinct. … The facts of this particular situation are inherently frightening,” Derrick said. “This combo means that reading media and listening to the news will agitate us — and the more we read, the more we will remain in states of anxiety and fear.”

Anxiety comes from worrying about what might happen in the future, and it’s a normal reaction in small doses, Derrick said. There are a number of ways to combat feeling anxious, such as exercising, taking a set of deep breaths, walking outdoors or other small actions that can have a big impact on our well-being.

“Try to read facts and steer away from opinion pieces,” Derrick said about media consumption.

Taking breaks from the news is an “essential” part of allowing the nervous system to reboot itself, Derrick said. And avoiding media and news hosts who provoke strong emotions is another way to keep from feeling a sense of anxiety or anger.

Again, Derrick said, taking breaks from the high-speed nature of the news cycle is a necessary part of responding to such a monumental crisis as the COVID-19 pandemic.

“One famous mindfulness teacher playfully suggests, ‘Come to your senses!’ This is how we slow our worry mind and cut short an anxiety attack,” she said. “Cut open a lemon and smell its freshness … for a couple of minutes. Kick off your shoes and feel your bare feet on a cool surface … for a couple of minutes. Step outside and feel your chest breath in cool, fresh air for a couple of minutes. Sometimes tiny things are exactly what we need.”

Adapted from an article by Thomas Plank, Idaho Press. Originally published March 30, 2020 at the Idaho Press online.

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