Larissa Govers, BSc
Not a day goes by that you are not confronted with coronavirus, albeit on the news, as a joke or because you got an email about it from your employer. The world is currently completely captivated by this disease, which shows symptoms such as cough, dyspnea fever and bilateral lung infiltrates . But here I wonder, why does a flu-like disease have the ability to affect the global economic growth, while other diseases with significantly higher burdens get by unnoticed? For example, the World Health Organisation has stated that depression is currently the leading cause of disability when measuring Years Lived with Disability, and even the fourth leading contributor to the global burden of disease . Even though it has been getting more recognition over the years, it will never be as a hot topic as the coronavirus is now. In this brief message, I wanted to dive more into detail to understand this phenomenon.
Mass media has the ability to alter perception of a large number of people, due to their extensive reach and constant exposure. It even goes so far that the media is able to shape our ideas and understanding of serious events and issues . This is also why this affects the way we see certain diseases and how we determine whether a disease is severe. But how does the media decide what will be discussed? Most importantly, fear has played a crucial role in the coverage of coronavirus by the media. As has also been seen in the outbreak of the “Mexican flu” in 2009, uncertainty about a threat leads to speculation of worst case scenarios. These speculations then increase the fear of the population, leading to panic . The same process has been seen in the coronavirus case, due to little knowledge on the potential risk of the disease. Successively, once the panic has spread, the media will keep publishing news reports in order to meet the expectations of the people.
This is what sets it apart from other high burden diseases, such as mental illness. Mental illness has been around since the beginning of time. Although it is still a topic we know very little of, within this disease there is not much to be afraid of since it will not put you in direct danger because it is not, for example, contagious. However, every once in a while, mental illness are found to be discussed on the news. Unfortunately, as described by Carmichael et al., the mainstream media coverage of mental illness tends to only focus on factors such as danger, criminality and violence. Maybe this is because those are the aspects of the disease we, as the public, do not understand and are afraid of .
What I have learned from this small dive into the world of mass media, is that it is not just the severity of the disease that is important for good coverage. No, to have the privilege to be thoroughly covered by the media, the disease has to lead to uncertainty, fear and panic. However, keep in mind, that not everything we do not understand, is dangerous. The Mexican Flu turned out to be not harmful at all, even though the whole world stopped working for a few days.
 Lu H, Stratton CW, Tang YW. Outbreak of pneumonia of unknown etiology in Wuhan, China: The mystery and the miracle. Journal of medical virology. 2020;92(4):401-2.
 Reddy MS. Depression: the disorder and the burden. Indian J Psychol Med. 2010;32(1):1-2.
 Srivastava K, Chaudhury S, Bhat PS, Mujawar S. Media and mental health. Ind Psychiatry J. 2018;27(1):1-5.
 Vasterman P, Ruigrok N. Pandemic alarm in the Dutch media: Media coverage of the 2009 influenza A (H1N1) pandemic and the role of the expert sources. European Journal of Communication. 2013;28(4):436-53.
 Carmichael V, Adamson G, Sitter KC, Whitley R. Media coverage of mental illness: a comparison of citizen journalism vs. professional journalism portrayals. Journal of mental health (Abingdon, England). 2019;28(5):520-6.