By Sarah-Jane O'Connor 14/03/2020


At a time when our news headlines are saturated with COVID-19, it could be helpful to look back at a previous disease outbreak for hints of what’s happening now.

Back in 2016, the infectious disease of the hour was Zika. Remember the Rio Olympics and fears that Olympians would be infected (there wound up being no cases linked to the Olympics). The terrifying news that in some cases the virus appeared to cause microcephaly in babies whose mothers were infected during pregnancy.

Now, a few years down the track, researchers have published a study looking at what drove people in the US to seek out more information about Zika.

Published yesterday in PLOS Computational Biology, the Italian authors used geo-located Wikipedia data to look at trends across states, matching up Zika-related searches with news coverage and the number of cases reported by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

They found two distinct peaks of Wikipedia searching: one at the beginning of February 2016 when the World Health Organization declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (you might recall the same declaration was made about COVID-19 at the end of January); the second in August 2016 around the time of the Rio Olympics.

Fig 1. Attention, media coverage and disease incidence of the Zika virus in the USA in 2016. (A) Daily Wikipedia pageview counts of Zika related pages. B, Daily mentions of the word “Zika” in TV programs broadcasted in the U.S. extracted from the TV Internet Archive. C, Daily number of Web news mentioning “Zika” extracted from the GDELT project. D, Weekly incidence of the Zika virus reported by the CDC. Originally reported case counts were smoothed with a biweekly rolling average. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pcbi.1007633.g001

These spikes in attention were similar across news coverage, which is to be expected: both the WHO announcement and the Olympics were likely to generate plenty of headlines.

What’s interesting about their findings is that Wikipedia searches weren’t linked to actual disease occurrence. You can see in the graph above that the incidence of Zika in the US rose steadily throughout the year, peaking in late August, but there was no corresponding increase in attention (as measured through Wikipedia data). Even the media coverage doesn’t correlate with the number of cases.

So how can we relate this to COVID-19? I take a few points away from this study. First – and one that we should already know – is the extent to which media coverage influences public interest in a topic. To paraphrase Allan Mazur – because I’ve just spent half an hour unsuccessfully searching for the correct reference – the media may not be able to determine what people think, but can determine what people think about.

In Aotearoa, we’ve seen an oversized reaction to the handful of confirmed COVID-19 cases. My feeling is that the media has needed to latch onto these cases to localise the global story, which could be a good thing if it leads people to seek out information such as that from Dr Siouxsie Wiles who is imploring people to prepare their pandemic plan and look after each other. However, we don’t want people becoming complacent. There is a difficult balance to be had in communicating the pandemic.

Given the role media play in sparking public interest in a topic, I think it’s more important than ever that experts are available and supported to communicate key messages to the public via the media. It can’t all rest on the shoulders of a handful of experts.

On the other hand, we should also be kind to ourselves in our media consumption. Writing on The Conversation, Griffith University’s Professor Mark Pearson offered some tips for balancing our need to know what’s happening with taking care of our mental health, including:

  • Avoiding 24/7 news channels,
  • Seeking out informative, long-form journalism, and
  • Using primary sources where possible, such as the WHO or Ministry of Health.

It’s also essential that we interrogate where information is coming from. This is the time to tune into your inner sceptic and think before you share. Washington State University’s Mike Caufield has an excellent guide on infodemic.blog.

If there’s one takeaway from Mike’s guide make it this one: Let’s hover. Take those extra few moments to hover over hyperlinks and check where information is coming from before you shout it out in the office or click share on social media.

And as always, wash your hands, stay home if you’re feeling sick, and look out for each other.

Featured image: Roman Kraft on Unsplash