Journalist wearing protective gear

A journalist, wearing a mask and gloves, films the Las Vegas Strip from a pedestrian overpass after all the casinos in the state were ordered to shut down due to the coronavirus on March 18, 2020

Among the jarring statistics related to the coronavirus pandemic, with more than 250,000 confirmed cases and more than 10,000 deaths as of Friday, is this: Only 50 percent of Americans trust the information they hear about coronavirus from news media, an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found.

The stakes in communicating this information are high: Experts say the extent to which members of the public practice evidence-based measures such as “social distancing” will affect how quickly the disease spreads, how overwhelmed hospitals become, and how many people die.

Hustling to nail down the latest facts only to find that readers don’t believe them, or that friends and family are disregarding the guidance of experts they have diligently quoted, can be exasperating for journalists.

The situation begs the question: What does the research say about how we take in scientific information and decide what sources to trust? Joy Mayer, director of Trusting News, a U.S.-based organization that has worked with journalists at over 100 newsrooms to build trust with their audiences, and other experts in communications and public health weighed in on the science and offered some best practices.

Repeat simple clear messages often

Susan Joy Hassol, director of Climate Communication, who has researched and taught effective science communication for 30 years, said the secret is “simple, clear messages, repeated often, by a variety of trusted sources” — a mantra coined by professor Ed Maibach at George Mason University. Yet, she noted, the public has been getting conflicting messages from health departments, social media, and elected officials on how serious the novel coronavirus is and whether people should go out to bars and restaurants. (For now, the answer is clear: Stay home.)

“It’s one thing to have disinformation come out on Facebook—we’ve got disinformation coming from the president of the United States” and other elected officials, she said.

Create charts and visualizations that can be more powerful than text

If words fail to reach a reader, an image may prove more powerful. Graphs have been shown to be more persuasive than text in counteracting disinformation, she noted, pointing to research by political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler.

In a 2018 study, they used graphs and text to relay information about climate change, a highly politicized topic, to Americans who strongly identified as Republicans. They found that “providing participants with graphical information significantly decreases false and unsupported factual beliefs”—more so than the same information conveyed through text.

Hassol cited two compelling visualizations that seem to have cut through the cacophony of 24-7 coronavirus coverage.

The first, by graphics reporter Harry Stevens at The Washington Post, used simple bouncing balls to illustrate how people pass infectious disease to each other. The March 14 story became a blockbuster, tweeted by President Obama and then retweeted 125,000 times.

“The response to the piece has been overwhelmingly positive,” Stevens said by email. “People have said that it has convinced them of the need to practice social distancing. They have also told me that it has given them hope and a sense of control, because by changing their individual behavior that can help slow the spread of covid-19.”

A second is a viral video by a Los Angeles-based couple showing one match stepping out of the way of a long row of matches on fire, stopping the spread of the flames.

“Do your part and stay home. It’s all we can do,” wrote the artists Juan Delcan and Valentina Izaguirre.

“I thought that was super powerful,” Hassol said. “Whether it’s in climate change or it’s in social distancing with the virus, people always say, ‘What does it matter what I do?’ It showed how breaking the chain of transmission can be so powerful.”

Anticipate “solution aversion”

Another bias that affects whether we accept scientific information, Hassol noted, is called “solution aversion.” Research has found that people will reject scientific evidence if it is tied to a solution they don’t like, such as government spending or gun control. This week, many journalists have urged readers to help “flatten the curve“—to slow the spread of contagion so that hospitals don’t become crippled by the influx of patients.

The solution—canceling plans, holing up at home as much as possible and staying several feet away from other people in public—”feels like a huge sacrifice,” noted Gillian SteelFisher, a senior research scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“We know from the science that it’ll work, but that can feel disconnected from people’s lives,” said SteelFisher, who studies public response to infectious disease outbreaks and other health crises. “There’s broader mistrust in science and research in so many ways.”

Many people don’t have the luxury of staying home, SteelFisher noted. But let’s consider those who can. Research shows that people are motivated to act when the threat is close to them geographically or close to their experience, she said.

That may explain why when actor Tom Hanks announced he had Covid-19, some people began to take the virus much more seriously. “There’s a window into celebrities’ lives that makes us feel closer” to them, she said.

Quote trusted messengers, like health and science professionals

When communicating about the threat of infection, SteelFisher encouraged journalists to quote people whom their audience considers to be trusted messengers. Her research has shown that typically means health and science professionals, not politicians.

As the threat of coronavirus loomed in January, Americans had much higher trust in medical doctors than in the media or elected officials, a Pew Research Center poll found. Americans’ trust in scientists varies by political party.

Depending on the audience, the most trusted voice could be Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. It could be a local doctor or religious leader.

In Mahoning Valley, Ohio, one very trusted messenger is Dr. Amy Acton, director of the Ohio Department of Health, said Mandy Jenkins, publisher of the local news site Mahoning Matters.

“Everything we’re doing is quoting her,” said Jenkins, who studied media distrust during her John S. Knight journalism fellowship at Stanford University. “She’s been handling it so well, I’ve been so impressed. She’s from our coverage area, which also helps.”

Jenkins said at this point in the pandemic, readers are inundated with news, so her newsroom is considering the question, “Is the amount of content that we’re churning out every day actually hurting us” in terms of audience trust?

Jenkins said her team is focused on “communicating the goal of what our coverage is—what can we give you that’s going to help you.” This week, she said, that included the not-so-glorious task of compiling lists of restaurants offering takeout.

There’s a delicate balance between alarming readers and enabling them to take action, according to Susan Krenn, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs at Hopkins’ public health school.

“If people perceive there’s a threat, they’re more likely to act,” she said. “But you can raise the threat level so high that people are paralyzed—they just don’t know what to do.” She said at this point in the pandemic, “we’re approaching that paralysis. As you raise the threat level, you also have to build their self-efficacy to act.”

People “need to be empowered with enough information and the ability to act so they can take the step and reduce the risk” of contagion, Krenn said.

Explain your journalistic process to readers to address public mistrust

Mayer and her team at Trusting News have been communicating by Slack, phone, and email with their partner newsrooms covering the virus, most of which are in the U.S.

The pandemic “seems to be offering new territory” for audience distrust, said Mayer, who worked as a journalist for 20 years.

“I’m very used to the public’s capacity to tie news coverage to a political agenda,” she said. “I was surprised by their ability to do it to this neutral public health topic.”

Mayer, who is offering trust-building tips through her newsletter, acknowledged that public complaints about journalism are partly true: “Any of us could find things done in the name of journalism” that had a hidden political agenda or sensationalized something to boost ratings, she said.

Indeed, some outlets have been called out for unnecessarily stoking fear through their Covid-19 coverage.

While it’s tempting to brush off complaints, Mayer said, journalists should instead take interest in the source of distrust and address it. For instance, a comment that a news site is exaggerating the pandemic to boost revenue is an opportunity to write openly about how the site makes money—and perhaps to note if it has dropped its paywall on coronavirus stories, as many have.

Mayer’s research has found that readers trust a news source more when they see a sidebar next to an article explaining the journalistic process. At a time when readers feel swamped with information, she encouraged media outlets to explain how and why they are covering the pandemic.

As a good example, she points to an open letter headlined, “Why WCPO is reporting so much on coronavirus, or COVID-19.” The letter, by Mike Canan, senior director of local media content at WCPO 9 in Cincinnati, addresses audience criticism and outlines the station’s efforts not to sensationalize.

“Our goal with our coverage is not to scare anyone or create a panic,” Canan writes. “Instead, our goal is to equip you with information that can help you understand what is happening and how to keep you and your family healthy.”

Further Reading

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