Effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic is dependent on individual understanding of the disease and compliance to prevention measures. Early media depiction of health information about COVID-19 may influence public perceptions and behaviour. Media should ensure coverage is relevant, timely and actionable to encourage individuals to respond appropriately. India has been particularly affected by a large COVID-19 caseload. We analysed online reporting in India to assess how well the media represented health information about COVID-19 as per the World Health Organization’s Strategic Risk Communications guidelines. This included media coverage of symptoms, transmission and prevention. We found that limited articles (18.8%) provided actionable suggestions to readers, including urging people to stay at home and social distance. Most articles were relevant as per WHO COVID-19 updates, accurately covering symptoms, risk factors for severe symptoms, transmission and prevention. However, 40% of media coverage of treatments options provided misleading information, such as suggesting plasma therapy or chloroquine, were effective. In addition, only 1.9% of articles included discussion of equity issues, where many prevention activities such as distancing are less applicable in lower-income households. Sixty-seven per cent of articles quoting sources of information quoted credible sources such as public health agencies and researchers. Media coverage also did not appear to reflect WHO updates in a timely manner, with most of the coverage preceding these updates. The findings show that Indian media should focus on actionable and relevant reporting that provides guidance for individual response. Media should also endeavour to report on evidence-based prevention and treatment options to avert the spread of misinformation.

The way media represents health information about COVID-19 may influence public understanding of the virus and behaviours they take to contain its spread. Therefore, media coverage should be accurate, timely and provide specific actions. India has been particularly affected by COVID-19. Based on the World Health Organization’s Strategic Risk Communications guidelines, we analysed online reporting in India to assess how well the media represented COVID-19 health information. This included media coverage of symptoms, transmission and prevention. We found that very few articles provided direct suggestions to readers on prevention behaviours, such as staying at home. Most articles accurately covered symptoms, risk factors for severe symptoms, transmission and prevention. However, there was limited coverage of equity issues that affect low-income households, such as their ability to social distance or hand wash. In addition, treatment options not known to be effective received high coverage, such as plasma therapy. Only some articles included credible sources of information such as quoting public health agencies and researchers. Media coverage also usually preceding official updates from WHO, rather than waiting and responding to validated information. The Media should report on evidence-based prevention and treatment options to avert the spread of misinformation and encourage appropriate behaviours.

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