How to get the message across during a pandemic

Research lives: Barbara Gormley, post-graduate researcher at DCU School of Communications

You are doing your PhD on communications in pandemics, what perfect timing!

“It is. It is not a surprise that we have had another pandemic; they are a given considering the emerging rate of novel infectious diseases since the 1980s. But, yes, the Covid-19 pandemic coincides well with my research.

What are you looking at?

I want to better understand how you get people to do what you need them to do when a health emergency happens. Initially I had been doing a case study of the swine flu H1N1 pandemic in Ireland in 2009, analysing newspaper reports and policy development with regards to responses and how it was covered in the media. Now I am also looking at the communication responses that are developing during Covid-19.

What have you been finding?

There are a lot of differences between 2009 and today. More people have a platform now to share their thoughts, especially on social media, and there is an abundance of disinformation, misinformation and conflicts of information.

A trend we are finding online is the policing of information. Due to the rapid rate of information-sharing even specialist journalists with large online followings have unwittingly amplified misinformation, or interpreted research findings inaccurately.

But due to policing of information by specialist sources, [the journalist] will take responsibility, apologise and correct when they realise their error. People are also giving commentary on the pandemic even though it is outside of their research area, and in general scientists are facing huge challenges communicating in this environment.

What about the science communication?

The science is moving quickly, and we are seeing research studies being published extremely rapidly as pre-prints. This is causing problems, though, because sometimes research findings are being discussed without the proviso that it is a preprint as opposed to peer-reviewed research.

What I find interesting is that in Ireland we have both the politicians and the medical and scientific experts out front at the press conferences and on media, trying to balance the developing science with the public recommendations.

That is an unusual situation, and I think we are seeing a mix of the public here being “given” the information in a top-down manner about the science, while also being engaged on topics like attitudes towards restrictions. So it is very much a hybrid approach to science communication.

How did you come to be doing this research?

My original degree was in physiology. I studied at Queen's University Belfast, and then I did a masters in public relations at Dublin Institute of Technology [now Technological University Dublin] and I then worked in PR roles. I wanted to go back and study using my experience in communication and my background in science, so I started this PhD with an Irish Research Council Scholarship.

What is your advice for dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic?

Everyone is asking when it will all stop, but I think we should instead be thinking about what we can do if this is ongoing for a protracted period, what can we do to live this way and how to communicate this effectively.

My thinking in the past few months is how we need a cross-disciplinary approach to effective pandemic communication as issues have arisen especially in relation to restrictions, complacency and fatigue.

Pandemic communication is unique and specialised, and needs to be supported not just by health and science communicators but by psychologists, neuroscientists, sociologists, sociobiologists and other disciplines too.”