‘Science & Society’ at Duke University in the US has been hosting a free series of virtual events called ‘Coronavirus Conversations’ to ‘shed light on the constantly evolving social impact of this crisis’.
The ‘Conversations’ have been important and interesting, ranging from how medical professionals make triage decisions in these unusual times to how artists and creators have been impacted and influenced. But the ‘Science Communication in the time of COVID-19’ seminar was a particularly intriguing conversation, raising thoughtful questions and providing valuable insights.
The webinar featured panelists Dr Dominique Brossard and Dietram Scheufuele (professors of science communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison), renowned science writer Sheril Kirshenbaum, and public health journalist Maryn McKenna.
Effective science communication examples
The moderators opened the webinar on a high note, asking the panelists for examples of effective science communication on COVID-19 with positive outcomes.
The panelists agreed that the widely transmitted information on direct behavioral changes – such as washing your hands for twenty seconds and staying two meters away from other people – did prove to be effective and was widely adopted, thanks to some very knowledgeable science journalists. Dr Brossard pointed out that much of the work done at the grassroots level has been very effective as well, complementing the communication from above.
McKenna observed that outside of journalists and scientists, some politicians have done a surprisingly good job communicating the science. She specifically mentioned American governors Gavin Newsom and Andrew Cuomo as political leaders who were able to communicate clearly, ask specific requests of their constituents, and not be afraid to say ‘I don’t know’. There have been several reports and discussions since then about the successful communication strategies of leaders like Governor Cuomo, whose empathetic but firm approach seems representative of the most effective technique.
Another critical topic was how science communicators can ensure that accurate information is heard above the noise of ‘fake news’ that floods the media on all topics, but is especially dangerous in the case of COVID-19.
McKenna emphasised the importance of choosing channels carefully, and avoiding the ‘echo chamber’ by making the most of people who have a different or larger audience than you do. She gave the example of when Dr Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was interviewed live by major US sports star Stephen Curry. The move was unconventional, but highly effective – Curry’s massive online footprint enabled Dr Fauci’s message to reach a new audience at a key time in the crisis. The basketball star surprised even seasoned journalists by asking Dr Fauci direct, relevant, and insightful questions.
Becoming a trustworthy communicator
Kirshenbaum described how people become relatable and trustworthy communicators by building trust with their audience, and connecting through common values and language. She also pointed out the importance of offering to listen to your audience’s questions and concerns.
Brossard agreed, and also suggested connecting the information being conveyed to the reality of people’s everyday lives. She challenged science communicators to ask themselves: what do people actually need to know? Does the public need to know the hour-by-hour death toll? With limited time and ability to hold an audience’s attention, the most important message should be prioritised – and that is more likely to be the information people need to keep themselves and their families safe and know what’s expected of them.
Finally, Scheufuele warned that science communicators need to acknowledge that not all members of the public will react to the same information in the same way – indeed, depending on people’s circumstances and the challenges in their lives, not everyone will be equally able to carry out the suggested behavioral changes. Acknowledging that fact, said Scheufuele, shows empathy and builds trust.
When asked what early career science communicators can do now to help, the panelists were in complete agreement. Science-minded individuals of all stripes are key to communicating with their own friends and family, and their own social network, where they will already be valued as a trusted communicator.
The panelists called upon the audience to become fact-checkers within their own networks and to push back against fake news, as research indicates we are more open to questions that challenge our beliefs if they come from within our own network. The panelists praised the concept of ‘the nerd node of trust’, popularised by Liz Neeley of Story Collider: become that trusted person in your family and friend group when it comes to answering questions about science in the news.
A case in point
The seminar launched Duke’s ‘Coronavirus Conversations’ series on a high note, and was itself an excellent example of science communication as it allowed any interested party to listen to the discussion and submit live questions.
While the themes discussed were important and timely to those scientists currently researching these topics and the journalists currently covering them, the moderators also ensured the conversation stayed relevant to the audiences’ knowledge and concerns and did not feel exclusionary. The seminar was open to all and therefore had a wide audience, being free and held at a time that worked well for audiences on both sides of the Atlantic to encourage a more international audience.
The moderators were themselves experts in the field, but were always mindful of the broadness of the audience, and would gently remind their panelists of that fact – ‘As you know, we have a variety of listeners today, including scientists, journalists, and policymakers….’ – and then prompt panelists to explain concepts that not everyone in the audience might have been familiar with. The panelists, while all capable communicators, seemed to appreciate the nudges to be mindful of the audience and not make assumptions or use unexplained jargon.
They also explicitly encouraged and solicited questions from people from a variety of backgrounds, by asking questions like: ‘We’ve had a few great questions from scientists; now, do our educators in the audience have any questions for the panel?’.
The lessons learned from communicating COVID-19 are in many ways a reiteration of conventional wisdom on science communication, but on a shorter timescale, covering a huge global scale, and with more urgent stakes. The COVID-19 crisis has made it clear where science communication failures cause confusion, incorrect behavior, and ultimate harm, while strong science communication shines and ultimately saves lives.