Why cooler heads must prevail on the COVID-19 virus

The risk that comes with panic and misinformation is a problem for health care communicators and PR pros as corporate and government interests battle the burgeoning crisis.

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The handwringing over the spread of COVID-19 virus or “coronavirus” has ratcheted up in recent days, with cities like San Francisco declaring a health emergency.

The stock market has been volatile as traders try to assess the disruption to global trade. Leaders in government have struggled to convince the world that everything is under control. Vice President Mike Pence has been tapped to head up the response to COVID-19 in the U.S., but global cases continue to climb.

However, the fears around the disease might be creating a media narrative that is doing more harm than good.

Trey Watkins, senior vice president of global health and corporate responsibility for GCI Health, explains that the anxiety driving much of the current news coverage isn’t helping.

“There’s no doubt that we live in a time where sensationalism clearly sells,” he says. “It captures headlines; it captures imagination.”

He warns that this is particularly problematic for fighting misinformation and panic.

“There are two driving forces of misinformation,” he says. “On one hand, we see misinformation perpetuated when we are in the absence of information. On the other, misinformation prevails when there is a lack of trusted information from a source that is considered reliable.”

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