Coronavirus has left the media in an awkward position. Say too much, and risk being accused of hyping something that will quickly fade into obscurity. Say too little, and face accusations of not doing enough to inform the public.
It's the same conundrum we see during the storm season, when an alarming headline about an impending tempest is instead followed by a huff and a puff - but very little gets blown down.
The trajectory of this virus, much like a storm, is confoundingly difficult to predict – in part because the information fed from thousands of kilometres away is incomplete.
Even the World Health Organisation oscillated between views, shifting from "no emergency" to "global emergency" in a matter of days. It's in this context that the media must make its calls on what to cover and what to leave out.
Those most critical of media coverage have been at pains to point out that the number of deaths – 500 at the time of writing – is still dwarfed by up to 650,000 worldwide deaths linked to influenza every year. And yet, readers who yawn at stories about the flu vaccine greedily gorge on coronavirus updates.
This divide in reader response is explained by shark attacks.
This latest coronavirus is an extraordinary event. It's a new infectious disease that could almost have been forged by some nefarious biohacker who has cracked the code to avoid every known medical defence. The flu, meanwhile, is as familiar as a road cone at an Auckland intersection. People will always be more interested in events that don't feel too familiar - like shark attacks.
The other reason for the interest in coronavirus is the level of intrigue involved. You have a mysterious illness that emerged in a far-away place with no warning. There's almost an element of cinematic drama that has unfolded as the story has evolved.
HSBC to defer appointing chief until after strategy shake-up
We've seen all the contagion film tropes, with references to the cause, "patient zero" and quarantined areas. Subplots have also emerged, with mysterious private planes landing in New Zealand amid a travel ban as well as the strange case of hazmat suits at a bank.
The steady chug of coronavirus news across the world has led to panicked people snapping up surgical masks at a rate that has some worrying we could be headed for a global shortage. Wired reported this week that the online stores that sold out of masks are now waiting for new stock from Chinese manufacturers, which are now pumping out 20 million masks a day. For those in the mask industry, like Texan Mike Bowen, business is booming. He told the tech publication that he recently sold a month's worth of masks in four days.
The fast-footed Texan isn't the only one looking to capitalise on the disease. Locally, we've seen a bar use coronavirus in a drinks promotion, and further afield, a doctor in India claimed to have found a herbal cure for the disease as soon as it reached the country.
This all reads as though it was plucked from the pages of Albert Camus' 1947 existentialist novel The Plague , which chronicles the strange behaviour of different groups of people quarantined in the French Algerian city of Oran during an outbreak of pestilence.
In the book, residents are desperately consuming news media every day, looking for updates, death numbers and whether there's an end in sight (sound familiar?). A group of opportunists also launches the Plague Chronicle , which sets out to inform townspeople "with scrupulous veracity of the daily progress or recession of the disease". The pages alongside this supposedly impeccable editorial would later become filled with advertisements for new "infallible" antidotes for the disease.
The modern equivalent of these opportunists can be seen on social media, in the mix of posts offering a convoluted mess of conspiracies, advice, faux antidotes, scaremongering and misinformation - the extent of which has been enough to encourage the usually reluctant Facebook to step in and delete posts carrying false information about the virus.
Add to this the hideous face of online racism emerging less than a year after the Christchurch massacre, and it seems only fair to question the role of the media adding fuel to the hysteria.
There's certainly historical evidence of the media getting it wrong. In 1999, Belgian news companies reported that Coca-Cola led to 26 children suffering from tiredness, stomach aches, headaches and other symptoms. The stories quickly spread and more people stepped forward to describe similar symptoms, some outside Belgium. The fallout eventually led to more than 30 million Coca-Cola products being pulled from the shelves as a precaution. And then, in a strange twist, an investigation by Belgium's Health Council concluded it was all a case of "mass sociogenic illness" - mass hysteria, in other words.
The counterpoint to this example would be the Chicago Tylenol murders in 1982, when seven people died after consuming Tylenol painkiller capsules that had been laced with cyanide. When an investigation revealed what was happening, the information was shared with news media which quickly informed the public. The rapid spread of information via the media may have led to fear, but it probably also helped to save many others who might otherwise have fallen victim to the faceless killer.
The point here is that there is no easy answer when deciding what the media should do about the coronavirus. At the moment we find ourselves somewhere between Coca-Cola and Tylenol. We just don't yet know which is closer.