Science and Health Communication during COVID-19


This post is co-written by Charlotte Armstrong from the Centre for Bioengineering & Biotechnology, who also works with the Royal Canadian Institute for Science (RCI Science), UWaterloo English‘s Devon Moriarty (PhD candidate), Dr. Ashley Mehlenbacher, and Dr. Brad Mehlenbacher, who all specialize in rhetorical theory and science communication.

Prof. Jennifer Harris posed several questions to us and we attempt to answer those questions here. Overall, our sense is that in the midst of this tragic crisis, it is too soon to have a good grasp on the full range of issues we are facing in the communication of science. However, rhetorical studies in science, health, and medicine, and broader studies of science communication and the allied field of technical communication have important lessons for us to consider.

Jennifer Harris asked: We’re in this moment where more people than ever before are trying to parse information about science. Have you noticed trends?

Uncertainty is perhaps the most obvious trend, and although it serves an important function, it can also be deeply discomforting. Consider, for example, the question of whether or not we should wear masks and, if we should, when we should wear a mask and what kind of mask.  The answer is: it’s complicated.

Researchers and media are hurriedly attempting to make sense of this particular moment in history, how we got here, if there have been other moments like this, what mistakes were made and what can we learn from them. The last 25 years have numerous events we can turn to for lessons and guidelines, including the anthrax attacks of 2001, SARS in 2003, and the Ebola epidemic in 2014. In all these cases, we have seen complex interactions between governments, scientific and medical researchers and practitioners, industry and business sectors, and citizens from multiple nations around the globe.

As well, studies of how news organizations and journalists generate health news suggest that it’s a complex process with multiple influences ranging from the sociology of media institutions through to the day-to-day processes of practicing journalists. For instance, we know news organizations report less science- and health-related news if they haven’t devoted specific resources to news coverage in those areas, they tend to publish more personal angles on health news (for example, about spread through religious organizations or through their children’s schools), and importantly, news tends to cover topics of interest to readers based on proximity and geographic relevance, a pattern that appears to have played out in terms of COVID-19, where news stories were reporting on the virus in Wuhan, China, as early as December, 2019, but North Americans were generally seemingly unprepared for its arrival here until mid-March, 2020, even after the World Health Organization had declared COVID-19 a Pandemic. Conversely, once the virus arrived here, some media content was being collected hurriedly, and this heightens uncertainty, as studies of avian influenza in Australia and studies of Ebola in Guana have shown us.

Finally, a trend we’ve noticed is that scientific information and its complex relationship to society is being discussed. Discussions are especially notable around matters of socioeconomic disparity, for example. What does it mean for essential workers who are paid minimum or near-minimum wage to be risking their lives for the continued functioning of our communities, our economies, etc.? We’re also starting to have important conversations about racism, structural inequality, and the elevated risk that marginalized people face from COVID-19.

JH: There’s a joke circulating online, a graph charting the increase of people consulting graphs. How important has our ability to convey and interpret this information become?

Being able to interpret and, importantly, vet information presented to us in graphs or charts was important before COVID-19 (hence the development of fields that study visual, media, and computational literacies), but the immediacy and proximity of the data to our lives renders that importance more clearly.

Scientific visualizations of data are not just simplified versions of numerical symbols; rather, they are meant to persuade readers to adopt a particular position towards something, often doing so in more vivid and memorable ways than text. In this way, visual representations of data also have the potential to oversimplify, exaggerate, or minimize if they are not viewed in relation to other narrative features such as practices for collecting, representing, and interpreting data, and methods of labelling, captioning, or framing graphics. Thus, it is useful to examine the complexity of visuals. For example, one might note that visualizations of the number of new COVID-19 cases and deaths reported globally are growing both in terms of the exponential spread of the virus and also because of increases in testing.

In addition to static scientific visualizations, animated graphs and videos are being shared widely by social media as well. Many examples of these types of visuals can be found in the news (for example, Forbes), via university institutions (see data collected by Johns Hopkins University and reported by CBC News), on, and on visualization companies’ websites (for example, Flourish Studio’s active cases by country visualization). Notable Canadian science communicators such as Mitchell Moffit and Gregory Brown of asapSCIENCE have also produced wonderful video material on how COVID-19 works biologically, and Henry Reich of Minute Physics has shown us how we can tell if we’re beating the coronavirus spread.

JH: Where do you think we could be doing better in relation to science communication right now?

There is some incredible science communication happening right now. Ed Yong’s work at The Atlantic has been excellent. Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, is regularly sharing updates through Twitter (as @CPHO_Canada). Another outstanding example is Dr. Bonnie Henry, the Provincial Health Officer for British Columbia and expert in infectious disease, who has demonstrated such phronesis (moral prudence/practical wisdom), arete (virtue or moral excellence), and eunoia (goodwill toward her audience) that she has a fan club on Twitter (@bonniehenryfans) and her communication approach is much-discussed in the press.

Among research scientists, too, scientific communication has played a central role in the COVID-19 response. These scientists are engaging in rapid and open research and we see an increase in access to COVID-19 related information (see, for example, Taylor & Francis’s COVID-19 Novel Coronavirus Content Online). Advocacy and consideration for research and researchers has generally been high. The research community is under tremendous pressure to provide expertise and media coverage (often on subjects that are not their field), take part in COVID-19 response committees, attend many departmental meetings, adjust curriculums for online platforms, and continue to adapt their research.

They have families at home and are being tasked with a tremendous amount of increased work and responsibility. And, most importantly, they are human and deserve empathy and respect as much as we all do during this difficult time. Experts are being asked to increase their science communication outreach at an extraordinarily difficult time. The stress of being asked to give impossible answers takes its toll.

Part of the difficulty with this pandemic is that there is a lot of good, clearly communicated scientific information out there, but the ways that we engage with media significantly impacts what kinds of science communication we even encounter in the first place, and whether or not we find it credible. Misinformation can circulate rapidly through social media streams, where even discerning users can be fooled or confused. Such was the case with the viral tweet about hand sanitizer (pictured) written by someone claiming to be a scientist; while the claim that hand sanitizer has no impact on the coronavirus was quickly debunked by numerous sources, it’s likely that many individuals continue to be misinformed (not to mention that individuals may have changed their hygiene habits or missed out on buying sanitizer at the store before being corrected). Filter bubbles as designed by our online behavior and social media circles, and our frequenting of comfortable ideological echo chambers, can not only limit the kinds of sources and information that we encounter, but also give us a false sense of confidence as to being accurately informed. Relatedly, Celeste M. Condit has looked at public health officials’ communications during the Ebola crisis, revealing that political orientations can significantly influence how audiences perceive the credibility of public health establishments, their officials, and their claims. This is to say that we all play a role in effective science communication. It is our duty as rhetorical citizens to be critical information consumers and distributors, taking care to check claims and our own biases so that we don’t become unwilling participants in misinformation campaigns.

As communication experts, we can also contribute to good science communication by getting more involved in our own communities. Kirk St. Amant provides an overview of instructional and informational materials that communications professionals can create for the benefit of organizations and individuals navigating the COVID-19 crisis. Producing accessible and accurate local resources might take the form of grocery shopping checklists for stores to distribute that are designed to prepare individuals to stay at home for long periods while preventing empty shelves from bizarre panic-buying (that is, individuals won’t need a stockpile of toilet paper but are likely to need canned foods). Such interventions can cater to the expectations and needs of the local situation and assist in reducing the strain on over-extended essential services.

JH: We talk about teachable moments–what we can and can’t take from particular events. What do you see coming out of this as a teachable moment?

Universities must communicate and collaborate openly so that researchers can connect and communicate their research to colleagues in other disciplines so that everyone can work together. Government officials, scientists and medical experts (both in the lab and on the front lines), media spokespersons and citizens must collaborate in new and creative ways, largely online and under pressure.

To this end, scientists and health experts have been hurriedly working to generate research that answers fundamental questions about how the virus works, spreads, is monitored and tested for, and reported since it first appeared, yet science communication about the disease, its symptoms, characteristics, and strategies for limiting its spread have spilled across communication channels that involve nations, government priorities and political administrations, social practices and definitions of community, socioeconomic issues, healthcare systems and resources, and definitions of individual responsibility and accountability.

Whether this moment in history is ultimately viewed as a series of catastrophic errors and missteps or as a moment when humans rose up collectively, globally, to battle an invisible, deadly enemy has yet to be determined.


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