Communication Department attributes coronavirus fears to misinformation


Montse Landeros

Four panelists discussed about the media’s portrayal of COVID-19.

By Gege Tan

Mary Anne Taylor, associate professor of Communication Studies, stated in a panel discussion about the coronavirus that the media is using the same hyperbolic language for COVID-19 as they displayed during the 2014 Ebola outbreak.

The event, titled “Understanding Coronavirus,” was held by the Department of Communication Studies in the Lion’s Den on Feb.13. The evening focused on racial discrimination and xenophobic language stemming from COVID-19 and other major health crises.

Deion Hawkins, an associate professor of Communication Studies, said language surrounding the recent coronavirus outbreak is crucial.

“It is imperative to give people correct language about coronavirus to make sure that we are eliminating any racism and xenophobia coming from those fears,” Hawkins told The Beacon in an interview after the discussion.

The World Health Center recently declared COVID-19, which first appeared in December in Wuhan, China, a global health emergency. The virus has infected more than 70,000 individuals in nearly 30 countries. Since its first detection, the virus has ignited fears worldwide, leading to incidents of violence against Asians and Asian-Americans due to racism and xenophobia.

Hawkins said people’s misunderstanding of the coronavirus comes from unreliable media sources spreading incorrect information. He emphasized the importance of fact-checking.

“It’s important that people understand that coronavirus is a virus that can be managed like any virus,” he said. “We shouldn’t always go to the fear-based approaches; We should not always let the media dictate how we respond.”

Alison Qu, a senior BFA Theatre student from China, was invited to speak on the panel. She said public opinion has been influenced by misleading headlines presented by the media.

“Headlines in the U.S. are focusing a lot on the numbers and cities,” she said. “This city has one case and that city has one case. It sounds deadly.”

Qu said the xenophobia surrounding coronavirus is overblown.

“You need to take care of yourself, wash your hands, [and] be careful all the time,” Qu said. “But not on the other extreme that [you think] when you walk near a Chinese person you’ll die.”

The discussion touched on what Qu labeled as a major misunderstanding that stems from the different cultural connotations of wearing face masks. Besides health safety reasons, people in China wear face masks to protect their skin during the winter and, for some women, at times when they don’t have makeup on, Qu said.

“I feel intimidated putting a mask on now,” said Qu. “[I wanted] to prevent unnecessary fear. At this time I wonder, am I going to get stared at? Am I going to get attacked [while] walking around Chinatown?”

Andrea Popa, director of the International Student Affairs office, said the epidemic hit right when people were traveling in and out of China to celebrate the Chinese New Year.

“I feel very disheartened,” she said. “International students are separated from their families during a time of celebration. On top of that, [international students] are facing fear and xenophobia from people on campus and the community.”

Yutong Wang—a sophomore VMA student from Wuhan, China—said her whole family has been quarantined.

Wang said she understands people’s worries and fears, but insisted that people be more critical when digesting information.

“Not all Chinese people eat wild animals, it’s a huge misunderstanding,” she said in an interview. “Plus, we are not one-hundred percent sure yet that the virus is caused by eating wild animals.”

Qu told The Beacon that she will be co-hosting another discussion event with ASIA next Tuesday at the Cultural Center to talk about racial equality issues in Emerson’s Asian community.