The Language of Coronavirus

Sam Farr

Over the past few weeks, it has become pretty clear that if there’s one thing the journalism industry loves more than political acronyms, immigration, or Princes Diana, it’s a good, old-fashioned disease story. 

At 11:22 on 3rd January 2020, the BBC released its first article on the 2019 Coronavirus, entitled ‘Mystery pneumonia virus probed in China.’ Since then, a quick scroll through the BBC’s designated ‘Coronavirus Outbreak’ tab reveals over 100 articles about the disease, its impact on stock, travel, and social media – with the same few words appearing across multiple headlines: ‘fears’, ‘control’, ‘deaths.’ 

With the Coronavirus death toll recently surpassing 1000 worldwide, it can be easy to lose sight over a disease that causes incredibly common symptoms and only proves fatal in approximately 3% of cases. In fact, according to The British Lung Foundation, 2012 saw 28,952 people die as a result of Pneumonia in the UK alone. CDC estimates additionally state that the 2019-20 Flu season infected between 22-31 million people, causing between 12,000-30,000 deaths in the United States. As it stands, you’re far more likely to die from one of these two than you are from Coronavirus.

So, what’s with all the hype? Why do  headlines no longer refer to the Coronavirus outbreak as ‘pneumonia’-like and now look a little more like this: ‘Coronavirus is a deadly test: did the world learn the lessons of Sars?’ (Guardian) The answer: to scare you.

Despite the fact that Public Health England has routinely described the virus as ‘flu-like’ and the BBC reporting that most at risk are people who are already sick due to a weakened immunity, the language of Coronavirus has spread faster than the disease itself. 

Heading into the fourth week of the outbreak, it’s not uncommon to see headlines such as:

  • ‘Ten people on cruise liner quarantined off Japan DO have coronavirus’ (Daily Mail)
  • ‘As Coronavirus Explodes in China, Countries Struggle to Control Its Spread’ (New York Times)

Whether it’s the capitalised ‘DO’ in the Daily Mail’s headlines or the word ‘Struggle’ in the New York Times, the language of Coronavirus is not only designed to scare you, but also to defamiliarize something we’ve seen many times before. It is this defamiliarization that enables high-profile journalism sites to post virtually the same article numerous times with a slightly different headline. You’re still going to click on them, which just means more traffic for their publication. 

Reading these headlines with their continually updated death-toll, you forget that we all know someone who has had pneumonia; we’ve all had the flu. But when whole news sites are dominated by this kind of language, it’s hard not to sit there with a slightly sore throat without imagining that you’re coming down with the latest strand of 2019-nCov. But don’t worry, you can always click on the ‘Symptoms’ article that has so helpfully attached for your convenience. Another click for the Daily Mail.

Image from the Washington Post.

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