Catching up with the coronavirus: A look at some things student journalists might want to know

Confession time: My first reaction when I heard about the “Wuhan coronavirus” was, “This sounds like something one of my students would make up after getting way too drunk at a Wu-Tang-Clan-themed party.”

In the subsequent weeks, it became clear that the coronavirus was going to be at the center of our attention for the foreseeable future. To help you in dealing with the coverage, whether you’re trying to localize it or just understand it, here are a few tools for your toolbox:

AP RULES: As per usual, the Associated Press has come out with some solid guidance on how to approach the topic, including explaining what this thing is, how it works and what we should and shouldn’t write:


A family of viruses, some of which can infect people and animals, named for crownlike spikes on their surfaces.

The viruses can cause the common cold or more severe diseases such as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) and COVID-19, the latter of which first appeared in late 2019 in Wuhan, China.

As of early 2020, phrasing like the new coronavirus or the new virus is acceptable on first reference for COVID-19, though stories should contain a mention of the disease’s official name, accompanied by an explanation. COVID-19 is also acceptable on first reference.

In stories, do not refer simply to coronavirus without the article the. Not: She is concerned about coronavirus. Omitting the is acceptable in headlines and in uses such as: He said coronavirus concerns are increasing.

Passages and stories focusing on the science of the disease require sharper distinctions.

COVID-19, which stands for coronavirus disease 2019, is caused by a virus named SARS-CoV-2. When referring specifically to the virus, the COVID-19 virus and the virus that causes COVID-19 are acceptable. But, because COVID-19 is the name of the disease, not the virus, it is not accurate to write a new virus called COVID-19.

SARS is acceptable on first reference for the disease first identified in Asia in 2003. Spell out severe acute respiratory syndrome later in the story.

MERS is acceptable on first reference. Spell out Middle East respiratory syndrome later in the story.

Symptoms of COVID-19 can include fever, cough and breathing trouble. Most develop only mild symptoms. But some people, usually those with other medical complications, develop more severe symptoms, including pneumonia, which can be fatal.

Do not exaggerate the risks presented by any of the three diseases by routinely referring to them as deadly, fatal or the like.

In terms of keeping up with the coverage associated with the virus, AP has continuing coverage here about the outbreak and some info hereto help understand the basics of the virus.

SCHOOL’S OUT? A number of universities have already looked at canceling classes or moving classes to online-only endeavors. NPR does a great reviewof the places that are keeping people away from people at more than 40 colleges and universities.

Specific publications have localized the outbreak, such as the Boston Globe, which took a look at Harvard’s decision to go online and how campus life has been upended thanks to the virus.

Some conventions, such as the Columbia Scholastic Press Association’s spring conference, have decided the risk isn’t worth it while others are pressing forward with their efforts. With Spring Break around the corner for many universities, the question of if cheap tickets are worth the risk has come up frequently in media reports.  Additionally, some universities are using Spring Break as the demarcation period for deciding to move entire classes online, thus giving professors the chance to figure out how best to do this.

Some questions that probably are worth asking, if you want to dig into the situation on your campus, could include:

  • What is our plan for this, particularly in terms of kids who live in dorms, where one person coughing on Monday leads to a total zombie farm of illness by Tuesday?
  • If we’re all leaving the campus, what happens to all that meal money that we’re being charged to eat at this fine institution? Even more, is it safe to gather in these large areas where open food is available and people tend to push through illness when it comes to avoiding calling in sick?
  • Is it actually feasible to move ALL classes online? It would be kind of ridiculous to move journalism stuff online, especially in terms of reporting on meetings and speeches. English classes are likely easier transitions than chemistry or biology labs. (Imagine mom and dad’s surprise when they find you dissecting a frog on the kitchen table…) How much thought has gone into this?
  • What’s the trigger point to bring everything back to the campus itself? Is there a break point that says, “Ollie, Ollie, Oxen Free!” for the students and staff? Or is this pretty much a done deal for the semester once the U pulls the trigger?
  • If we’re keeping classes open, what kind of pressure has this put on the student health center on campus? If every fever or ache is supposed to be checked out, that seems like it would be an awful lot to do with whatever staff is available for the health center folks.


MOMENT OF ZEN: Of all the things I’ve heard about this so far, sadly, the only thing that sticks in my head was something my wife told me this weekend: “Did you know that you can sing ‘COVID-19’ to the tune of ‘Come on, Eileen?'”  I don’t know where she got this from, but now it’s all I can think of.

You’re welcome:

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