TV News Scrambles Special Reports for Coronavirus Coverage

Scientists aren’t the only ones hoping to put the coronavirus under a microscope.

Various TV news outlets are also trying to pin down the outbreak and, what’s more, make it more understandable to the average person. CNN, NBC News, ABC News and CBS News are among those shaking up regular formats and seeking new ways to inform the public about the contagion, which has spread from China to Europe and the United States. Their job is being made more difficult by the spread of inaccurate information about prevention on social media, as well as a White House that seems not to understand that some of its comments directly contradict the advice of experts.

“It’s really important to be honest and to say what we know and what we don’t know,” says Dr. Jennifer Ashton, chief medical correspondent for ABC News, in an interview. “That’s one of the biggest challenges in this situation.”

 The news outlets hope to offer more facts than flash as they tackle different projects centered on helping Americans understand the challenges that coronavirus may soon have them facing.

CNN on Thursday at 10 p.m. will broadcast what it is calling a “global town hall” led by Anderson Cooper and Dr. Sanjay Gupta. The two-hour special will feature interviews with health experts who will take questions from members of a studio audience as well as viewers around the world. The event came together in just the last few days, Gupta and Cooper said in an interview Thursday afternoon.

The two correspondents hope the event will give people some relief from worry over an issue that is causing much hand-wringing and concern. “We very much want to make sure that we are not being alarmist in any way but very factual and very honest,” says Cooper. “I do think that’s what is actually making people feel better.” Cooper and Gupta have tracked outbreaks in the past, even going so far as to travel with people trying to find out how a virus may have jumped from an animal host to a human one, and will call upon that experience Thursday evening.

Other coronavirus coverage will play out as viewers pull back from the work week and have more time to focus. On Friday, CBS’ “CBS This Morning” will devote its entire second hour to coronavirus coverage, with correspondents fanned across Europe, Asia and the U.S., and also look at discrimination against Asian Americans. ABC News’ “20/20” will on Friday night present a live two-hour special led by David Muir and Ashton, who will use video diaries from people inside China’s quarantined cities in a bid to chronicle how the outbreak has verged on becoming a global health crisis.

And then, on Sunday, MSNBC will feature correspondent Richard Engel in a new broadcast of “On Assignment.” Viewers will see NBC News’ chief foreign correspondent travel to Hong Kong, where he met a doctor treating patients with coronavirus; Singapore, where he went inside of a lab in which scientists have isolated the virus and are studying it; and the United States, where he interviews Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who is being recognized as the government’s most authoritative source on the matter.

Engel has been getting the hour-long show ready over the course of the last two to three weeks, and thinks his task might be a little tougher than the ones being performed by his counterparts. “This is not a panel show,” he says, but is based on interviews he has done in Hong Kong, Singapore and the United States. Because the coronavirus story keeps changing, the team working on the special may well have to make changes on his show throughout the weekend.

“The timing is very specific,” he says in an interview Wednesday. “We are crashing it right now.” Three different editing teams are working on various segments. Viewers may be surprised to see Engel in full hazard garb as he interviews the Singapore team.

One of the challenges of covering the coronavirus outbreak is having to explain to viewers not only the latest developments in a fast-changing story, but also trying to establish verifiable medical information.

“People should know and feel comfortable in the fact that when we get our information, we are not just winging this,” says ABC News’ Ashton. “There is literally around-the-clock research, discussions, interviews, deep dives going on, not just by me and each network medical correspondent and medical unit but by every correspondent. Every person at the network is working on this. I think that’s a message that more people need to understand so they can feel comfortable we are getting out information from direct sources, literally the world’s experts in this, who are usually not the same people who are used to communicate to the media.”

Covering the story can stir up some pressures, particularly for physicians taking on the journalist’s role. “As a tradition, doctors are always walking this balance between honesty and hope. You want to be hopeful for people, but honesty is the critical ingredient” says Gupta. “When people are having this experience and it’s being presented in an evidence-based way, it serves to reduce a lot of anxiety.”

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