The Power Of Communicators

As we start to get into the possibility of another pandemic, we’re faced with the need to explain it to the public. All of our risk communication muscles should be getting ready for battle (while hoping that we don’t need to actually use them!). The first thing we need to do it come up with a name: what the heck should we, the media, and the public call it? (Is this a fetish of mine? We’ve talked about it for coronavirus and hurricanes thus far.)

The reason I keep talking about names is because they are so powerful. Aside from the Sandy it’s-not-a-hurricane-we-have-to-use-other-warnings disaster, there can be real consequences because of the words that we choose to use. We’ve all heard the swine flu to H1N1 flu ordeal, but besides confusion (which is admittedly something to avoid, duh), the damage can be much worse.

Gwen Ifill, writing for PBS Newshour, understands the power of how we describe things, and what’s it means in real life:

Wednesday was the worst of it. A suspect was arrested, we were told. He was in custody, we were assured. And the only description of the suspect was that he was male and “dark-skinned.”

I tweeted this: “Disturbing that it’s OK for TV to ID a Boston bombing suspect only as ‘a dark-skinned individual.’”

And the hounds of Twitter hell were unleashed.

Conspiracy theorists on the left applauded me for what they saw as right-minded commentary on race in America. Conspiracy theorists on the right denounced me for what they saw as wrongheaded commentary on race in America. Both were wrong.

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The wrongly-labeled color of the suspects’ skin immediately conjured images in everyone’s head. It confirmed bias where there was none, leading to a fracturing of the conversation, yes, but the worst was what it did to arm-chair detectives (and maybe even real-life detectives). Folks like Sunil Tripathi were pulled into the fray, smearing, fingering, jabbing at their good names. All because one of us, a communicator, slipped. Surely you can imagine the ongoing fear in the muslim, “dark-skinned” community, especially after the last decade of hate crimes directed at them.

This is the power we have. We can literally move mountains. Positively if we’re thoughtful, negatively if we’re careless, and unproductively if we’re unclear.

I like to think that we are learning our lesson. The CDC and WHO both got ahead of the naming problem of H7N9 influenza and released recommendations for calling it avian influenza A(H7N9) virus. A mouthful yes, but the only people who saw that name were the researchers and public health folks who communicate with clinicians. In a released document, they made allowance for alternate uses. Ways and situations it was appropriate to call it something else: H7N9. While this certainly isn’t going to do anything about news anchors shooting their mouths off, I think it’s an admission that the words we choose have real consequences and we need to consider all situations and listeners when we speak.