Navigating risk communications during a pandemic

CATEGORIES: News, Students
Student studying a desk
Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash.

At the start of the coronavirus pandemic a year ago, Dara Wald, assistant professor of environmental communication in the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication, had no idea how relevant her course Risk Perceptions and Communication (JLMC 560) would be for the graduate students in her class then and now.

From natural resource management, to ecology and evolutionary biology, to sustainable agriculture, to journalism, the 13 students in Wald’s current class comprise a diverse cross section of disciplines. But what they have in common are future careers that will put them in situations where they need to communicate scientific information to audiences that may be wary of their messages. They are also bonded by the coronavirus pandemic, which is often the topic of classroom discussions.

“We have so many examples of good people trying to communicate and the message just isn’t getting out there in the way people intended it, or it’s hitting against people’s strongly held identities or their beliefs,” Wald said. “As a class, we’re able to talk about that and say, ‘Why is this happening?’ COVID has been the backdrop for many powerful conversations in class.”

The significance of taking a class about risk perception while a pandemic rages across the globe is not lost on the students.

“We have all been living a case study in risk communications for the past year,” said Cynthia Hicks, graduate student in agriculture communications. “It has been interesting analyzing the communications about COVID from different sources—the university, city of Ames, the state of Iowa and the federal government—and how the message has evolved and changed.”

Huong Nguyen, a graduate student in sustainable agriculture, is disheartened by some of the communication surrounding COVID-19.

“I am disappointed that COVID-19 risks were communicated mainly regarding the number of deaths, whereas survivors can experience permanent health damages,” Nguyen said. “Physical conditions aside, I had expected more forward-thinking communication and awareness-raising actions about the psychological consequences of being isolated, especially for the elderly who are less tech-savvy and thus forced to be less socially active.”

Analyzing risk

Students choose a risk at the beginning of the class to focus on for the duration of the semester. Recently, some students have selected COVID-19 while others have picked options related to their specific field of study, such as increased herbicide resistance in agricultural weeds. From there, the class attempts to define risk and how it’s perceived, based upon people’s existing beliefs and values. Next, the class researches best practices for communicating risk and the obstacles that keep those practices from being implemented. At the end of the semester, Wald traditionally assigns students a presentation and paper that covers the students’ chosen risk. But since the coronavirus pandemic struck a year ago, she has offered students the option of creating an anthology about their lived experience during this unique time.

“Last year, I had students who created poems and stories and images. I had some students who did a video anthology where they just talked about their experiences and what they were struggling with,” Wald said. “I hope it was a good way for them to close the semester and try to think about how their lives have changed. It was a hard semester for a lot of people.”

Get the facts

From daily newscasts to casual conversations with friends and family, COVID-19 continues to be top of mind for most people. That’s why Wald teaches her students that listening is key to moving forward in difficult conversations.

“Understanding what others’ interests are and what drives them is a critical part of trying to engage in a difficult conversation. Addressing real or perceived risks, particularly when a topic is uncertain, confusing or polarized, should be a process of two-way communication where I, the communicator, spend a lot of time listening and trying to understand what people’s concerns are; listening not to change beliefs, but because I want to understand,” Wald said. “That’s the first step in building trust and a relationship so you can have an open conversation.”

Colton Poore, a graduate student studying ecology, evolution and organismal biology, said Wald’s class has opened his eyes to the value of listening.

“People have values, opinions and ideas of their own, all of which influence how they perceive and respond to different risks,” Poore said. “You can’t take those values and normative perceptions out of risk communication. People aren’t robots, and you can’t expect them to react like robots. Most of the time, people care about a lot more than the data.”

A tall task

Wald admits that risk communication is difficult to do, and it can be challenging to do well. But she wants her students to embrace listening to others first in order to craft a message that resonates with their audience, especially during the pandemic.

“I think we all need to be a little but humble about how difficult this is. If it were easy, we wouldn’t have 40 years of risk communication research and still see the kinds of challenges we’re seeing with COVID,” Wald said. “The more we know about it, the more likely we are to do it well.”