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Media ‘infodemic’ overload inflames public anxiety and fears


Warlike metaphors and dramatic wording can provoke panic buying and affect mental wellbeing, says academic

Society is fighting an “infodemic” of misinformation about Covid-19, with many news outlets exploiting public fear and anxiety about the virus, a New Zealand media studies academic has said.

Cherie Lacey is part of a multidisciplinary research team at Victoria University of Wellington that is looking at how media reporting of the coronavirus is shaping the public response.

“As we’ve seen in the New Zealand media over the last month, Covid-19 has been described as ‘deadly’, or a ‘killer’, or even that we are ‘bracing for war’. Currently, we are in ‘lockdown’,” she writes in an editorial published by the university.

“Words like these, which evoke combat or invasion, can make us feel under attack. Metaphors like these can also influence how we might behave—provoking panic buying, for example.”

Lacey said that news outlets were playing a vital role in communicating health and safety information to the public but that they also shaped the public response through their use of dramatic metaphor.

She is working with health researcher Annemarie Jutel on a study that is exploring how the “tone and content of information about Covid-19 affects the mental wellbeing” of NZ tertiary students. Lacey said it was difficult “to find examples of accurate and straightforward medical descriptions of the virus itself in the media”.

“Instead, we see the vigorous use of metaphors being used to describe the virus. In addition to warlike metaphors, we’ve also found Covid-19 being likened to natural disasters, such as bushfires, earthquakes and tsunamis. Together, these sorts of descriptions can invoke anxiety, fear and a sense of powerlessness.”

She said there was also a danger that social media could spread misinformation and exacerbate feelings of helplessness.

“We know that technology can affect our health and wellbeing and there’s a danger of people spending too much time [online] consuming media about this health crisis,” Lacey writes.

“My biggest tip for digital wellbeing right now would be to put limits around the use of media in general, but especially around news consumption. It’s pretty tempting to check the news throughout the day for more information about Covid-19, but I suggest limiting this to two or three times a day.”