Don’t panic: It’s only pandemonium


PANDEMONIUM: It’s a clever heading but last Saturday it wasn’t very clever at all.

The 120-point (that’s 43mm high) headline screamed from the front page of the Weekend Herald and was accompanied by a blurb that began “Panicked shoppers last night descended on supermarkets across Auckland, stocking up for what one labelled ‘the apocalypse’…” The accompanying picture showed hazmat suit-clad figures.

All of this sat above the broadsheet’s fold on the supermarket stands. Only when readers looked below the fold to the bottom half of the page  did they see the more measured introductory paragraph: “New Zealanders are being urged to remain calm after the first case of coronavirus was confirmed here – despite public health officials saying more cases are highly likely.”

There, too, they would have found the caption to the dramatic photograph. It was, in fact, taken in Tehran – a tenuous link to the first New Zealand victim who had flown from Iran.

For the record: The Oxford English Dictionary defines pandemonium as ‘wild and noisy disorder’.

The Weekend Herald stood in stark contrast to the country’s other metro dailies. The front page of the Weekend edition of the DominionPost was headed “Coronavirus IS HERE” and a blurb quoted health minister David Clark as saying “We are well-prepared, because we’ve had time to be prepared’. Christchurch’s Press carried front page news of the first case but led with mayoral election expenses, while the Otago Daily Times led with a measured “First case of virus in NZ”.


The contrast highlights an issue of accountability that takes on heightened significance as the world moves into the pandemic phase of COVID-19: First do no harm.

Journalists are not in a position to do physical harm, unlike the doctors who have accepted various versions of that bond over the centuries, but they are more than capable of exciting reactions that can encourage individuals or a community to act against their own best interests.

There are numerous ways in which these forms of harm can be created but among the most dangerous are fear and its binary effect – panic.

The prevention of harm to individuals or society is one of the fundamental tenets of journalism. Harm can be direct, such as provoking self-harm or inciting disorder, or more general, through such things as misrepresentation.

Creating or magnifying fear has the capacity to do both direct and general harm.

Populations throughout the centuries have lived in fear of plagues and diseases like typhoid, cholera and yellow fever. The modern equivalent of the feared diseases of past centuries is the cross-species transmission that produced Ebola, SARS and now COVID-19.

The fear of diseases ancient and  modern is natural, as is the instinct to protect yourself from them. Sociologists call this desire ‘self-efficacy’ – a need to personally control the means to avoid being struck down. It’s a social trait that is used in health campaigns to get people to ‘get the message’, at times in the past this has been through the arousal of fear. However, sociologists are equally aware that arousing fear can cause what they term ‘fright reactions’. Perhaps the best known of these is our reaction to snakes and the strong desire to avoid them. Such reactions are primal and very strong when experienced at first hand, but they can also evoke a similar but less intense response when encountered through the mass media. Horror movies owe their success to such reactions and, sometimes, so do newspaper sales.

The problem is that, while there may be a rational basis to our hard-wired fright reaction against venomous snakes, there are no guarantees that our reaction to other fears will produce rational responses. That is why health professionals have moved from community-wide campaigns that scare people to messages that promote healthy behaviour and provide tools to help them control their own actions.

Margaret Humphries wrote an article titled ‘No safe place’ in response to panic over the mailing of letters containing anthrax spores to U.S. media and politicians in 2001. It was a survey of fright reactions to diseases in the United States since its foundation. In it she reiterates a common finding: The diseases that cause panic are not usually the diseases that kill the most people on a daily basis. Rather, she found the diseases that cause panic are the travellers. They turn safe places into danger zones, they cross boundaries (in the case of COVID-19 those boundaries are both biological and geographic), and they are novel and – unlike seasonal influenza – not something we have learnt to live with.

It is a long-established panic reaction. Before mosquitos were found to be the carriers of yellow fever, steamboats travelling the fever-infested inland waterways of North America were met by men with shotguns to stop ‘suspicious’ passengers from disembarking.

Disease panic and the news media form what Margaret Humphries described as ‘their own generative circle’: The more panic, the more rumours, the more demand for information.

That, of course, can be a good thing when news media fulfil another of their fundamentals: Benefitting the public through full and fair reporting.

As New Zealand, along with the rest of the world, faces the inevitability of further coronavirus cases there is an undeniable role for news media in providing information that will help people minimise the risk of infection. Yes, media must hold authorities to account for their response to the pandemic, and debunk misinformation and its deliberate derivative disinformation. However, if the pandemic begins to spread locally, their over-riding responsibility must be the provision of information  that helps keep people from harm. Sometimes that information will be remarkably mundane, but important. When the Red River burst its banks in North Dakota in 1997 and there was a risk of infection from contaminated floodwaters, the Grand Forks Herald published a recipe for bleach…and kept running it for six weeks.

Irrespective of the stage of the virus’ spread, media must do nothing that could fuel an inclination to panic in the face of danger and they must not forget that panic is a contagious disease. It can be as detrimental to the public good as the spread of the disease that gave rise to it. It can make the work of hard-pressed health professionals and policymakers well-nigh impossible.

New Zealand media have diligently tracked the global spread of coronavirus. They have questioned politicians and government agencies on preparedness, and queried the veracity of statistics from some countries where the numbers are at odds with the rhetoric. They have provided useful information on how New Zealand’s population should act in the face of the virus’ arrival here, and have tracked the local effects of its spread in other countries.

Leave aside the sharemarket reactions that are more complex equations that factor in such realities as supply chains and market behaviour, but we have already seen the early signs of disease panic here. So far, its irrational manifestations have been a run on facemasks and supermarket shelves. They have harmed nothing but the purchasers’ wallets. The run on facemasks is a futile attempt at protection, and the gaps on supermarket shelves have been minor and temporary.

Politicians and public health officials have been urging calm and it is vital that the news media also take that advice. In the majority of cases they have done so. Even the Weekend Herald’s  substantive coverage was reasonably measured in tone. There was nothing in their own coverage – let alone the realities of the situation – that could justify a screaming headline like PANDEMONIUM. At best, it was a gross overstatement. At worst, it could become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

It is more than possible that its genesis was simply that someone thought it up and liked it. A brilliant play on words…a real showstopper. For news people there is a seductive quality to showstopper headlines: That’s great, we’ve got to use it! When bigger things are at stake, however, they need to pause and reflect on the fact that this isn’t show business. – Gavin Ellis






2 thoughts on “Don’t panic: It’s only pandemonium

  1. Hi Gavin
    I find the whole process of headline writing in news(papers) quite confusing now. Where are the stories subbed and the headlines written? Are they in the same building as the reporters? In the same city? Or even the same country? It must be easy to write a glib headline when you are not part of the affected community, I think.

    1. The number of subs has been slashed to ribbons. There was a period of outsourcing but, in the case of the Herald, it was in the same city. Then it was brought back in-house.

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