Emotions in Crisis Coverage: How UK News Media Used Fear Appeals to Report on the Coronavirus Crisis


During crises, journalists rely on emotional appeals to alert the public. This includes fear appeals, i.e., journalistic depictions of threats and measures against them. Focusing on the coronavirus crisis, this study analyzes the prevalence of fear appeals in journalistic news, differences between outlets, and changes over time. It employs a manual content analysis of UK online news between January and May 2020 (N = 1048). Results indicate that, during the early phases of the coronavirus pandemic, journalists relied heavily on fear-inducing messages by emphasizing threats related to COVID-19 and, though to a lesser degree, measures against these threats. Besides differences between tabloids and quality outlets, we find that fear-inducing content decreased before the UK itself became most affected, indicating that coverage served a warning function rather than mirroring national affectedness. Overall, the study illustrates that fear appeals are common in coverage of crises, where they enable journalists to take on the role of public mobilizers and facilitators of crises response strategies, for instance by governments.

Journalism and Media