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Opinion: How science journalism changed our COVID-19 behaviors for the worse

Consensus measures — that actually work — were presented with such a simplistic and heavy hand that it set off many people’s skepticism

SHARE Opinion: How science journalism changed our COVID-19 behaviors for the worse
A person outside a state capitol holding a sign that says “no jab,” referencing the COVID-19 vaccine.

Two limitations to the field of health communication have impacted efficient and effective information dissemination amid the pandemic.

Ted S. Warren, Associated Press

Science is about nuance, dialogue and slowly crystalizing knowledge about observable phenomena. Internet headlines are about getting clicks. 

And when the two collide the result is often infuriatingly misleading. Take two standout headlines of recent years: “The universe shouldn’t exist, according to science” or “Dogs can read our minds.”

With 2 million research papers published each year, the competition for attention can be fierce. Researchers anxious for reach (and potential funding and impact) are incentivized to frame and discuss their research to appeal to what some journalists need most — clicks. 

It might be tempting to dismiss some forms of science journalism entirely and consign science to the classroom where there is space for the discussion and the nuance necessary for better understanding. 

But during a COVID-19 pandemic, we don’t have that luxury. We have a pressing and sometimes life-or-death need for up-to-date information.

And with an estimated 7,500 research studies on COVID-19 in the first four months of 2020, it’s all the more important for informed writers to work with experts to translate and sift through the ever-growing repository of information to distill what’s most important.

Specialists often work for large institutions working directly with researchers who look at and draw conclusions and then try to translate that information so it is understandable to a mass audience. But two limitations to the field of health communication have impacted efficient and effective information dissemination amid the pandemic.

The first is what science communicators call “the deficit model,” which assumes the public is deficient in their understanding of science and need scientists as the learned elites to help the benighted masses.

This approach ultimately creates more barriers between the information and those who need it. But while there have been some efforts at challenging the concept, it is still largely the de facto approach to science communication.

The second limitation is that the goal of health communication is not to inform others, but to change their behavior. There are legitimate social goods that we ought to persuade one another of. But persuasion is one step further down the road than understanding, yet as a field, health communication blends them together while prioritizing persuasion.

The result has been that the information about the COVID-19 pandemic that actually reaches the public has often lacked the nuance and dialogue people would expect around well-vetted information.

Ironically, some of the information designed to change behavior has ended up backfiring. Consensus measures such as mask-wearing, vaccination and social distancing were presented with such a simplistic and heavy hand that it set off many people’s skepticism. Had this information been presented with nuance, and had communicators trusted the public, there may have ultimately been much higher adoption rates of the most effective preventative measures.

We certainly can’t go back and redo the science journalism of the past 18 months. But communication around COVID-19 is certainly not over, and this would be as good a time as ever for communicators to assess how they’re presenting necessary information and, more importantly, how the public is receiving it.

People want clear answers without condescension or manipulation. For example, many people want to know exactly how prevalent the delta variant is. How many of the new cases and deaths come from that variant? Is it transmitted differently than we had prepared for last year? How effective is the vaccine against the variant? Those answers exist, but wading through a morass of articles, commentaries and social media posts to get there could taint a population’s view of the truth.

Other questions remain, as well. What is the evidence for booster shots? How often will booster shots be necessary? How effective are plastic sneeze guards? Which masks are actually effective at preventing transmission? 

After more than a year of adapting to COVID-19, a certain kind of inertia has set in. We need the best information possible to continue to make the best choices.

Health communicators and science journalists share a responsibility to share this information with the public in a way that informs rather than sensationalizes. Only then is the condition right for behaviors to change.

Christopher D. Cunningham is the managing editor of Public Square Magazine.