Communication in Covid-19 at the Potomac Institute and International Law Institute Webinar on April 29, 2021

By Ford Rowan | April 29, 2021

Presentation by Ford Rowan.

I appreciate the opportunity to talk about a subject I have grappled with since 1965 when I became a reporter.   I reported for 20 years before practicing law and consulting on risk management.

The topic is the challenge of communicating in a health emergency.  Some things I will cover:

Risk communication is distinctly different than normal news media coverage.

News Media coverage amplifies the risk – invariably by drawing attention to a crisis and sometimes triggering anxiety.

Cable news is incredibly biased for reasons that involve money more than politics.

Social media – Facebook, twitter, etc. is hopelessly biased and suffers from Gresham’s law, that the bad drives out the good.

Let us start with the last item.

Social media is less likely to reflect reality than the news media.

Social media messages stir emotions of fear, including misinformation, spread conspiracy stories, and highlight contradictory political statements that trigger outrage.

Why is social media worse than news media?  The news media is sometimes biased, particularly in deciding what topics to highlight.  The great anchorman David Brinkley was once asked to define “what is news.”  His answer: “News is what I say it is.”  In the past the bias was all about what topics journalists decided to cover.

The news media is in the business of mediating reality.  The underlying media ethos is about accuracy.  The facts usually catchup with the claims.

Social media is not mediated by professionals seeking accuracy.

When I worked as a news reporter, accuracy was 100% and my opinions were zero percent from day one of my employment in the news business.

My boss told me to always double check everything.  “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

My managing editor also said, “I don’t care about your opinions and I damn well do not want to find out watching your reporting on television.”

Like most old guys, I think it has all been downhill since I left.

Let’s look at how traditional news coverage is related to communication about risk.

Why is risk communication important?

COVID-19 has been so disruptive and – for many people traumatic.

So many people have died from the coronavirus. Thousands of family members were not able to visit their loved ones in hospitals and nursing homes. Thousands could not be present with a dying father, mother, wife, husband, or child. The funeral has not been scheduled.  The body may be in a refrigerated truck somewhere.

Grieving has been disrupted.  Mourning is essential for psychological health.

When talking with someone who lost a loved one to the virus, it is easy to slip. It is easy to inadvertently say something that triggers a traumatic memory. Triggers can hurt.  There is an epidemic of suicides in this country.  During COVID-19 there has been a growing number of suicides.  Including suicides of health care employees, first responders,  law enforcement and veterans. Drug overdoses have soared as well.

Knowing what to say – and most importantly, what not to say – can have a life-or-death impact.  The drumbeat of bad news can trigger trauma.  It can require “psychological first aid,” something that is taught at the Johns Hopkins University and University of Maryland.

I taught for a dozen years at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism (in DC).  Several of my students are now news media reporters, including one that’s  doing a great job on television talking about the pandemic.  But I never taught students about psychological first aid.

How does communication about risk affect psychology?

Slide 1.

Prior to COVID-19, I studied 4 health emergencies:

  • The Anthrax attack if 2001,
  • The SARS outbreak of 2003,
  • Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (where I helped respond in the aftermath in New Orleans),
  • The 2009 Influenza pandemic (where I helped train state/federal public health officials before and during the emergency).

Now, in COVID, I have worked with the Berman Institute of Bioethics at Johns Hopkins on such things as how to allocate life-sustaining ventilators when the need escalates, and if the supply runs out.

Slide 2.

Psychological issues are aggravated by political partisanship.

  • They are complicated by scientific uncertainty.
  • They are fueled by fear of the unknown.
  • The public wants answers, but they hear many falsehoods.
  • Misinformation has triggered resistance to being vaccinated.
  • Social justice has been undermined. (the coronavirus risk to persons in prison is much higher than those in the free world and some ethnic groups have been especially plagued with illness.)
  • Accurate risk communication is crucial.

Slide 3.

National Academy of Sciences defined risk communication:

  • “An interactive process…
  • exchange of information and opinion….
  • the nature of risk…
  • concerns, opinions, reactions to risk messages….”
  • It is not just about science.

Slide 4

Why do some risks seem very risky?

  • unfamiliar risks v. familiar risks
  • risks I cannot control v. controllable risks
  • involuntary risks v. risks I chose
  • risks with no benefits v. risks with benefits
  • risks that seen unfair v. risks that are shared broadly

Slide 5

This is not just about science. It is about power.

  • Who knows?
  • Who decides?
  • Who controls?
  • Who benefits?
  • Who must pay?

Slide 6

Accuracy is crucial

  • Empower people to make decisions
  • Leaders must communicate honestly with the public.
  • Transparency is crucial.
  • Appeal to people’s own best interests
  • “Shielding” families  is better than “lockdown” (a term from prison).
  • Inspire people to help each other.

Promises unkept are the dark side of trust.

Once lost, trust is extremely hard to regain.

Do not wing it.

In Conclusion:

Communication has undermined public trust during the pandemic.

  • News media coverage has amplified the risks.
  • Social media messages have stirred emotions of fear.
  • Contradictory political statements have an angry tone.
  • Erroneous information fuels distrust.
  • Conspiracy stories have caused outrage.

Aristotle’s Advice About Effective Communication:

  • Understand the listeners’ concerns, fears, and hopes (“pathos”).
  • Demonstrate the speaker’s ethical character (“ethos”).
  • Utilize effective reasons (“logos”).
  • The logos must align with your ethos to address their pathos.

In other words, effective communication about health risks must:

  • Ring true with the public.
  • Be true for you, the speaker.
  • Be true period.
  • To resonate it must be authentic and accurate.

Put aside the news media and social media and let’s consider face-to-face conversations.

We can all help people face anxiety when they must go back to work or school while the virus and its mutant variants are circulating and causing illness and death.  Here is how:

  • Overcome uncertainty through meaningful engagement with others.
  • Overcome pessimism by encouraging others do things they are good at.
  • Fight feelings of powerlessness by joining in productive activities.
  • Encourage folks to collaborate.

Cohesive communities are resilient communities.

So let us empower people with information:

Listen to their concerns and address them.

Enlist their support with honest information.

That is because victims feel powerless.

Survivors often feel like victims.  The goal:

Turn survivors into rescuers.

Rescue other people. Help others in need.


Anxiety is as contagious as the virus.  Each of us may not be first responders, but we can respond and help others.  Volunteering can be contagious too.

For the past 20 years I have been volunteering in prisons and in reentry programs to help inmates when they are released back into society.  In one way, reentry after prison can be like reintegration in the workplace after  a lockdown.

People who are released back into society often feel adrift.  They succumb to some bad habits like alcohol  abuse and drug addiction.

Right now, deaths from opioid overdoses are higher than in previous months.  I am concerned not only about the coronavirus pandemic but about the opioid pandemic which has killed hundreds of thousands of people over many years.

That is another reason to reintegrate people carefully in this reopening process, train personnel to level with them, help them to fight feelings of powerlessness, and encouraging them to do productive things.

Helping others and doing a good  job are good for our health and good for all of us.