Published March 5, 2020
Outbreaks of new diseases like COVID-19 infect the public with more than germs. Confusion and misinformation are just as contagious among the general public.
To keep the public informed but not alarmed, it’s important for health experts and governmental agencies to communicate simple, clear facts to ordinary citizens, according to UB health communication expert Janet Yang, associate professor in the Department of Communication, College of Arts and Sciences.
Yang, whose research topics include science, health and risk communication, offers professionals a few guidelines for getting out the right message about the outbreak.
Build trust through transparency. “Experts and government agencies need to keep the public informed on the development of coronavirus in the United States to maintain trust,” Yang says. “As we have learned from the situation in China, intentional cover-ups are the worst way to deal with a disease outbreak.”
Keep the message simple and specific. Yang says the most important messages to send out to the public right now are two simple ways to protect themselves. First, good hand-washing for at least 20 seconds, with soap and water.
“There is evidence showing that hand-washing is the most effective way to safeguard our health from coronavirus, seasonal influenza, or just a common cold,” she says.
Second, Yang says, is social distancing — avoiding large gatherings and crowded places in areas where a contagious disease is likely to spread.
“We are very fortunate in America that we do not have the same population density as in China or other Asian countries,” she says. “However, to ensure sufficient social distancing, we should stay at least three feet away from anyone coughing or sneezing, or otherwise looking sick.”
Avoid simple comparisons. Researchers who study risk communication have found that comparing risks is not always effective because people think about different risk topics in very different ways, Yang says.
“I see a lot of messages that compare the coronavirus outbreak with other past outbreaks, such as H1N1 and SARs. Although this comparison may be reassuring for people who actually carefully read the statistics and scientific data, most ordinary citizens will not make an effort to do so,” she says.
Rather, simply providing the number of confirmed cases in a given locality may be the easiest information for people to understand, she says.
Provide consistent and timely updates. “It is important to keep information on all official sources consistent and constantly updated. People may get their information in many places, and inconsistency can elicit doubt and suspicion,” she says.
Educate and take countermeasures. Yang points out that there are false information and rumors related to coronavirus spreading on social media. To counteract this, she says, it is important to educate ordinary citizens to verify their sources before they share anything they see online.
“However, a more effective strategy may be to have agencies engage in countermeasures whenever misinformation is detected,” Yang says. “For example, if a rumor tweet is being sent around, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the New York State Department of Health should immediately follow up with a tweet to debunk the rumor.”
That was the case last month when the Erie County Department of Health issued a statement and tweeted in response to widespread false and inflammatory rumors being circulated in social media.