Coronavirus is (also) a communications crisis
The coronavirus pandemic is a communications crisis in addition to a medical crisis, as the outbreak is accompanied by a deluge of information, including considerable amounts of misinformation and rumours.
Handling what the WHO has called an “infodemic” is a necessary part of an effective response.
If people do not have access to reliable information from trusted sources about what they should do to protect themselves, their families, and their communities, and if they do not understand how authorities are responding, public health measures will be less effective and public health will suffer.
The response to the communications crisis should in my view ideally, just as the response to the medical crisis, be informed by expertise and up-to-date evidence.
How we respond to the coronavirus is a profoundly political question, and a question for each of us and the communities we are part of. Research cannot, should not, and will not dictate how we handle the coronavirus communications crisis, let alone the wider medical emergency and societal impact of the pandemic across our communities, the economy, and more.
But research can inform our responses, provided research is made available for us, as citizens in the public at large, as well as for decision-makers in governments, health authorities, and the like.
Communications research has a lot to offer – but are we offering it?
I believe communications research has a lot to offer in informing both public and policy decision-making in this crisis. But I think the relevance and importance of our collective work is rarely recognized. I think we are relatively absent from many of these debates. And I’m not sure we are always doing what we can to change that.
If that is so, the result will be that substantially important public (and policy) discussions of issues deeply intertwined with the core of our field are dumber than they could have been, in part due to our relative absence, an absence that I think is in turn in part due to the ways in which we as a field do our work.
I have written elsewhere (and draw on that here) about how even in high-profile cases that clearly involve issues that are in large part about communications (e.g. the role of different forms of political communication including misinformation and more in influencing various political outcomes in for example the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election and UK EU Referendum), we as a field are often largely marginal to these public discussions. Instead, academics from more or less adjacent fields (economics, political science, sociology, in some countries even law) are invited to hold forth with their more or less informed views on our core object of analysis, communications.
The communications crisis around the coronavirus pandemic I think is another powerful illustration of this.
We might think we have what Thomas Gieryn calls “epistemic authority” over communications, but often, no one seems to care what we know. If we actually know more about what we study than others do – which I think we do (otherwise we might as well all go home?) – there is a consequence from our absence, an opportunity cost, a price that the public will ultimately pay in a crisis like this, as well as a consequence for our field by reinforcing the perception that we are irrelevant.
If that is so, I think we should do what we can to change it?
External and internal factors influencing our absence
So if we are relatively absent, why is that? I think there are external and internal factors (more about it here).
External factors we have no control over. They include what I think is in most countries our relatively low status as expert sources among journalists, who tend to go to others for information about our area (we aren’t exactly “primary definers”), and the way in which “knowledge regimes” in many countries are institutionalized in ways that privilege other sources of knowledge for input in policy processes than ours (they’ll probably go to the economists, lawyers, and think tanks first, no matter what we – as scholars of communication – think).
One World Health Organization webinar I attended early on, organized specifically to help others deal with the communications crisis and starting with the observation that “infodemic management must be built around evidence” featured more than a dozen expert speakers, of whom only one (Leticia Bode) to my knowledge has ever worked or published in the field of communications. (The term “infodemic” itself I think is interesting. It is not an established concept our work or social science research more broadly. It comes from a newspaper comment piece written in 2003, and while evocative, a Google Scholar search suggests almost no use of it in academic research prior to 2020.) A UK government call for social science experts to help advise them on the crisis was circulated, but did not even list media and communications research among the fields and disciplines they were interested in.
Internal factors we, at least collectively, and especially those of us who occupy positions of privilege and power within communications research, have some control over. They are rooted in some of the informal norms and formal reward systems that characterize our field. Both informally and formally, I think we often privilege a certain way of producing peer-reviewed work for a narrow academic audience to a degree that risks relegating everything else—interdisciplinary collaboration, teaching, service, let alone various forms of public engagement—to the margins. Despite some variation from country to country and university to university, at a field-level what we recognize (informal norms) and reward (formal institutions) is primarily peer-reviewed publications produced for a field-internal academic audience.
Let me underline that I strongly believe that peer-reviewed publications are an indispensable core of what we do. Public and policy engagement is not a substitute for scientific work, but engagement can enhance it and supplement scientific work, creating what Helga Nowotny calls “robust knowledge”.
It is precisely because I believe that we as scientists together can produce distinct, valuable, and reliable knowledge with a bearing on some of the big issues of our time that I am concerned with our relative irrelevance to public debates. I believe we have much to contribute to debates like the debate around how to confront the communications crisis that is part of the coronavirus pandemic.
So how visibly engaged are we as a field?
Not everyone is in a privileged enough position to prioritize engagement if informal norms and formal rewards are tightly focused on very specific things. But some of us are. Few more clearly than those we honor as ICA Fellows, all of whom are distinguished scholars, and most of whom have senior, secure positions with considerable autonomy over how they spend their time, including whether and how much they prioritize various kinds of engagement.
The ICA Fellows are formally and informally celebrated role models for our field – they do scholarship, and through the recognition we bestow on them for their distinguished work, they also model scholarship for the wider community.
So how visible are the ICA Fellows as ambassadors for their own and our collective research in the coronavirus crisis? There are many forms of meaningful public and policy engagement. Not everyone is in a position to do any, let alone all of them (our primary responsibility to those closest to us arguably takes precedent over professional responsibilities). But perhaps appearances in news coverage can give an small indication of how visible or invisible we are as a field.
There are currently 181 ICA Fellows listed on the association website. Of these, 124 are (a) alive and (b) working in an English-speaking country. Leaving aside those who are sadly no longer with us, and the many eminent colleagues who work at least in part in other languages than English, I have worked with Felix M. Simon to collect data about how frequently these 124 ICA Fellows have appeared in the news in connection with coronavirus.
Our data collection was simple, and not meant to be comprehensive or exhaustive (we don’t look at broadcast or social media, for example). It is not any way a rigorous analysis, but simply indicative of how visible we as a field are in public debate as mediated by news through these distinguished scholars who represents much of what is best in our community.
For each fellow, we have searched for them by ““FIRSTNAME LASTNAME” coronavirus” on Google News for the period from January 1 2020 till May 20 2020. To guard against human error and the often inexplicable variation in opaque systems like Google News, we both collected data for a random subset of 10 individuals. For 8 of these 10, the result was the same, for the remaining, minor variations.
In the 141 days from January 1 to May 20 (both included), these 124 distinguished communications scholars and ICA Fellows collectively appear 405 times in news coverage captured via Google News. It is worth noting here that Google News is very, let’s say, ecumenical in the definition of “news”. The University of Pennsylvania Office of University Communications is included alongside the BBC and the New York Times, as is Penn Today, run by same office, and the independent student newspaper the Daily Pennsylvanian.
Here is a bit more detail on what we find—
- Five ICA Fellows, four women, and one man, account for half the media mentions (197 mentions, 49%). They have a wide range of areas of research interests including children and media, health communication, journalism studies, and political communication
- For those who might suspect public engagement comes at the expense of scholarly impact, it is worth noting that these five ICA Fellows have Google Scholar citations ranging from over six thousand to almost fifty thousand.
- The median number of news mentions among the 124 ICA Fellows is 0. Sixty-six of them do not return any results. It’s not even really a long tail, more like a stump.
- Women make up 47 (38%) of the 124 ICA Fellows included, but account for 251 (62%) news mentions in the sample. This is heavily driven by those with the most mentions. Looking only at the 119 ICA fellows in the long tail who account for half the news mentions combined, women account for 36% of the fellows and 37% of the mentions.
(This is not a competition, and not zero-sum, but for comparison, the British political scientist John Curtice appeared 185 times in the same period when searching for him the same way on Google News. The American sociologist Ruth Milkman a 106 times. Trisha Greenhalgh, Professor of primary health care and a practising general practitioner, 158 times. All of three of them appear more often in coronavirus news stories on Google News than any of the 124 ICA Fellows included here.)
I don’t think thousands of media mentions are intrinsically valuable, but if they are ICA Fellows appearing in the news, I would have confidence that they are in most cases an important part of how our field and our collective work is presented to the wider public. In the ocean of coronavirus crisis coverage, where Chartbeat reported 2.3 million articles on COVID-19 in the first three months of the year alone, with 405 mentions of more than a hundred of our most illustrious colleagues over four months, can I say I think we are bordering on being invisible?
What do we do next?
The 2020 ICA conference theme is “Open Communication”, which our President Claes de Vreese describes as part of the wider move towards open science, among other things “oriented toward advancing scholarship through transparency, wide-ranging collaboration, and a focus on the creation of public goods [and] sharing knowledge about our research process”. And more widely across the field, I think there are moves afoot towards more engagement in different forms.
Everyone will have their own favourite examples, here are a few of mine.
In 2019, the Journalism Studies Division introduced a public engagement award for out-wards oriented work (supplementing the 12 different awards the division gives for more field-internal oriented forms of work, including multiple best paper awards for both faculty and students, best extended abstract, best poster, best article, best dissertation, best book, and best reviewer) championed by our chair Keren Tenenboim-Weinblatt. The new award recognize different kinds of engagement, including informing the public about research and making it more accessible, influencing policy or professional audiences and their work, and/or involving the public directly in research projects, partnerships, events, and engaged learning approaches. The 2019 recipients were Sue Robinson and Talia Stroud, the 2020 recipient Irene Costera Meijer, all of whom command tremendous respect for their commitment to combining research excellence with public engagement.
In 2020, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a titan of our field, of political communication scholarship, and an ICA Fellow among many other honours, received the National Academy of Sciences Public Welfare Medal for her “non-partisan crusade to ensure the integrity of facts in public discourse and development of the science of scientific communication to promote public understanding of complex issues”. She is again a scholar who has demonstrated through an extraordinary career her commitment to combining research excellence with public engagement.
And of course there are many important examples beyond those who work mostly in English, or indeed those who appear in the news – Julia van Weert and her colleagues at the Amsterdam Center for Health Communication engage both with the public and policymakers in the Netherlands and beyond, Hye-Jin Paek is bringing her academic expertise to bear while currently working for the South Korean government. Leticia Bode as said has featured in multiple WHO settings, discussing the important work she has done with Emily Vraga.
It’s interesting to note that both in the news mentions of ICA Fellows, and the more impressionistic examples I list above, women feature far more prominently than they do in raw numbers of ICA Fellows or in the most privileged, senior positions in many parts of our field. It is worth noting here, I think, that some researchers analyzing academic work and career patterns argue that many dominant informal norms and formal rewards in the academy privilege a dominant form of masculinity associated with older and frankly stereotypical images of the natural sciences, with the lonely researcher perched atop a scientific hierarchy, far above everyday issues, and sometimes effectively punish others, often women, who chose to practice science in ways tightly bound with other societal practices concerning the production, transmission, translation and exchange of knowledge.
Men, who in all countries I know of still occupy the vast majority of senior positions and full professorships in our field, and account for 77 of the 110 ICA Fellows included in our data above, are not entirely absent of course. Not only has Claes de Vreese championed open science in communications. Another example is ICA Fellow and former Journal of Communication editor Silvio Waisbord, who explicitly argues in his book The Communication Manifesto that we need to tackle academic institutional politics if we want to strengthen public scholarship as central to the mission of communication studies. He too I think is an example of a scholar who combines research excellence with public engagement.
All these and more every day demonstrate their commitment to combining research excellence with public engagement, and demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that this is not a zero-sum trade of, but that we can be excellent scientists, and excellent at engaging with those outside of our field, at the same time. Who knows, maybe both the public and we will benefit in the process?
What could we do?
What might more public and policy engagement look like? Some of this simply requires hard work and prioritizing engagement, not as a second shift or a hobby, but as part and parcel of a scholarly vocation. If there is something akin to the marketplace of ideas John Stuart Mill described as a “rough process of struggle,” we need to get stuck in – as Hamilton sings in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, “when you got skin in the game, you stay in the game”. I would encourage in particular colleagues in privileged positions to think about whether public and policy engagement could play a larger role in their professional work.
I also think we can look for inspiration in adjacent fields for innovations. If the Washington Post can host the Monkey Cage blog drawing on political science, why not a blog on media and communications research? Many colleagues already write for the Conversation, an pieces there are sometimes re-published elsewhere. Political scientists like Brendan Nyhan and Pratap Mehta write regularly for newspapers, as do Zeynep Tufekci who may be the most prominent public voice for our kind of work right now. Beyond a narrow focus on news, there is social media, podcasts, webinars, and free online courses, and much else. Sonia Livingstone has given Ted Talks. The climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe has built up a very public profile across events, news, social media, and more. Institutes like Data & Society set up by danah boyd serve as what Peter Galison calls “trading zones”, spaces for thinkers, academic or otherwise, to listen, argue, and even collaborate and develop “interactional expertise”, the ability to talk from a position in a field to those overlapping with it, adjacent to it, and outside it.
We have a lot to offer. But we have to offer it, and I think we have to informally celebrate and formally reward those who offer it if we want to institutionalize engagement as part of communications as a field. I think we should.
And in this context I think it is particularly important that those who enjoy the rare privilege of secure employment and considerable autonomy, and who we hold up as role models for future generations of communications scholars, think about whether and how they represent our field and bring our collective expertise and knowledge into public and policy discussions of the big issues of our time.
The coronavirus pandemic is a communications crisis in addition to a medical crisis and much more. It is a moment where we can really help make a difference. I am not sure we are doing the best we can, but I hope we will try. We might even learn something ourselves about communications by offering it, and build an even stronger field. I think we will.
I wrote this post with super helpful research assistance from Felix after a panel at ICA 20 chaired by Claes H. de Vreese, where Hye-Jin Paek from the Department of Advertising and Public Relations at Hanyang University (working in South Korean government currently); Julia van Weert, Professor of Health Communication at the University of Amsterdam; Dietram A Scheufele, Taylor-Bascom Chair in Science Communication and Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; Leticia Bode, Associate Professor at Georgetown University, and I had a chance to discuss how our work as communications researchers might matter in the coronavirus crisis. Watch it here and more about our RISJ COVID-19 research here.