With public distrust in media and government running high even before the arrival of COVID-19, scientists and medical experts have stepped up in recent weeks to become trusted voices on the outbreak, sharing fact-based messages designed to inform and protect.
During a virtual conversation on COVID-19 and politics of information, hosted Friday by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins, JHU faculty member Colleen Barry hailed these experts as "true public health heroes.
"Those voices can go a long way toward providing at least the baseline we need to establish trust," said Barry, who chairs the Department of Health Policy and Management at the university's Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Barry was joined for the discussion by Dartmouth government professor and New York Times contributor Brendan Nyhan, an expert on misperceptions about politics and health care. Their conversation, moderated by SNF Agora Institute Director Hahrie Han, was the first in a new series titled "SNF Agora Conversations: The Politics and Policy of COVID-19." Additional virtual conversations bringing together experts to discuss the political and policy implications of COVID-19 are planned in the weeks ahead.
"Like everyone else, we've been watching as events unfold around the coronavirus pandemic and ... thinking about how our collective responses to the pandemic have the potential to exacerbate stresses that democracy all over the world has already been experiencing," said Han, describing the new series as a "social-scientific, evidence-based approach to exploring some of the most vexing political and policy issues surrounding the pandemic."
Barry and Nyhan noted that the intractable nature of our current media landscape—divisively partisan, with consumers self-selecting their own information sources that often affirm their beliefs, however misguided—has complicated the information exchange related to the global outbreak.
"Hearing different views really increases the confusion. There's no Walter Cronkite telling us what to think and do on the evening news anymore."
Misinformation in this context, Nyhan noted, "could be life or death."
Panelists emphasized that even with trusted voices from the scientific and medical communities stepping forward in this moment, our understanding of COVID-19 is constantly evolving and new data is becoming available every day, so both the media and public must be nimble in adapting.
"The challenge for us is to keep [COVID-19] in the category where there is social consensus around the scientific process—however imperfect it may be," Nyhan said. "And that's going to be critical because this science is happening on the fly."
Nyhan added that it's key to focus communication on the core set of facts that scientists do unanimously agree upon. "We need to be reinforcing over and over again those important messages about washing your hands and social distancing and all the things that will help us get through this epidemic," he said.
Agora's next live telecast takes place on Friday, March 27, at 12:30 p.m. with a conversation, "One Pandemic: A World of Responses," that explores different countries' varied responses to COVID-19 and the lessons governments can learn for preparing for future challenges. Participants will be SNF Agora senior fellow and historian Anne Applebaum; Ho-fung Hung, professor and chair of the Johns Hopkins Department of Sociology; and Josh Sharfstein, vice dean of public health practice and community engagement for the Bloomberg School.