Communicating Science During a Pandemic

by Sarah Schwartz, Biological Engineering Communication Fellow

In the last month, coronavirus has rapidly rewritten the rules for how we engage with each other. Science communicators play a crucial role as they investigate, clarify and contextualize incoming data. Communicating complex concepts is a standard challenge that researchers, journalists, physicians, and other members of the scientific community struggle with daily—but these are not standard times. The elevated stakes and stressors of a pandemic make the job delicate, charged, and critical.

Watching professional and social platforms in the past month, it seems fair to say that results have been… mixed. Helpful, concrete messages are competing with misinformation and inaccurate generalizations. So, how can we do better as science communicators?

It’s hard to know exactly how to tackle an unprecedented situation like this one, but there are several approaches that can help us get the right message across in the best way possible.

1. First, Be Right.

Especially in stressful times like these, when our words have immediate emotional or societal impacts, the most important thing is to always make sure that what you communicate is correct. People are making decisions and forming opinions based on the input they receive, and research suggests that once an opinion is formed, it is extremely hard to change it. So for science communicators, being accurate is not just a challenging part of the job; it is an ethical obligation. Think of it as social responsibility in a time of social distancing! We’ve already seen multiple cases of inaccurate information shared during this time; some are simply disappointing, but some could be dangerous. So no matter what else you do — be right above all else.

One good way to avoid unintentionally scrambling your scientific message is to keep in mind what your role and credentials are as a communicator. If you have expertise on a subject through training, research, or experience, you should offer your insight in that area! But beware of generalizing or offering incomplete guidance. Include and amplify opinions and input from other experts, who may have different expertise and may be able to speak more readily or accurately on different subjects. This helps ensure that your training and platform as an expert are used for good — and to avoid frustrating scientific colleagues or, worse, misleading the public.

2. Know your Audience.

As a scientist or science journalist, this is the central rule that guides the writing process. Who’s reading what you write? It might be other scientists reading your research article, or friends and family reading your social media post. Considering who is accessing your words allows you to catch their attention with the right themes and tone. But more importantly, it also allows you to consider the ways in which someone might misunderstand or misconstrue.

Take, for example, a recent Twitter post that, in punchy, listified meme format, simply asserted that people can never “boost their immunity.” The responses featured heated arguments over whether drinking more water or getting more sleep made that statement untrue, or whether restoring one’s immune system was the same as “boosting immunity,” or even whether we should “boost” immunity at all. The author’s intention was scrambled for many, and fewer people benefitted from the possible insight.

Tuning the original statement for its intended audience could have helped clear things up. If the message was designed to protect members of the public who might purchase fraudulent supplements in the hopes of staying healthy, it could have read: “Beware of expensive products that claim to protect you from coronavirus — there is no approved vaccine or cure!” If the message was supposed to caution members of the scientific community against overzealous proclamations, it could have been written: “Saying that someone can ‘boost’ their immunity confuses people! Remember, you can only bolster your baseline immunity.” These statements are less generalizable — but by virtue of this, they are also much clearer. The more carefully a message is targeted toward its readers, the better chance that it will be received as it was intended.

For our writing to succeed, we often have to imagine ourselves as our own readers, asking questions they might ask. Would someone without a scientific background follow your reasoning? Would someone with a different training be able to contextualize what you have said? Will readers be able to fill in any important information you didn’t say? Considering and then addressing these questions in our writing allows us to prevent misdirection or confusion.

3. Be Accessible.

Once you have considered your target audience, communicating science is all about making complex concepts clear and engaging for those readers. This is especially essential now, with vast quantities of urgent, scary information about viruses and quarantines swirling around. Making your writing easy to digest is key to getting important science out into the world.

Some tips for making your writing as direct, specific and information-rich as possible:

  • Cut down on words.
  • Use shorter sentences.
  • Reduce or eliminate jargon (especially when writing for the general public).
  • If appropriate, you can also try adding creative or personal touches—try a different tone or format if it enhances your ability to reach your target audience. (When I was training as a science writer, my teachers described this tactic as covering the healthy “vegetables” of facts in a tasty cheese sauce of style.)

Together, these approaches help make text interesting and approachable. But remember to keep the first point in mind: before all else, be right.

There will always be tension between being brief and snappy, and being thorough and accurate. You might need to add words. You might have to include some jargon (and then clearly describe what your terms mean). A meme or personal anecdote might be catchy or funny, but may need to be sacrificed to clearly and correctly cover a nuanced topic. It is definitely possible to balance these competing goals — to, for example, communicate the correct protocol for handwashing in an entertaining meme. An ideal message is both correct and interesting — but if you have to fail at one of these tasks, being correct but dull is generally safer than the alternative.

Chin up!

As we watch, research, and write during a rapidly evolving scientific emergency, we have to remember that this is hard. Trying to champion clarity under the emotional and societal strain of a pandemic is a tall order. Communication is the currency of social animals, so social distancing and quarantines make the task even harder. But science and policy are collaborative efforts, and so is science communication. Reach out to other members of your community for support, insight, and input.

We will all make some mistakes or missteps as we try our best to inform and investigate. But fighting to be better here — to be more accurate and engaging as communicators — will improve not only our own skills as scientists, writers, and speakers, but also the public good of shared, timely understanding in our communities. So keep fighting the good fight! It benefits us all.


Where Can I Get Reliable Info for COVID-19 Science Communication?

Keep in mind that you may get the most pertinent information from local or regional resources. For the MIT community, that includes:

Read the rest of our COVID-19 blog series