Let's all avoid COVID-19 narratives based on pity and fear

During a pandemic, positive communications are more important than ever.

Getty Images
Getty Images

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt lives, how communicators talk about that disruption will be the key to public opinion. We now have an opportunity to embrace positive communication with values like hope, while shunning negative communication based on pity and fear.

Our communication will only be a disservice to our institutions and audiences if they experience this crisis with us in a negative way.

There are real concerns that inequalities may be magnified and about the threat the pandemic poses to people who have fled their homes and are now in formal and informal camps. But a pandemic is not the time to provoke pity or fear towards any group.

Instead, we must commit to uplifting people's dignity, humanity, and resilience. We would not call ourselves vulnerable, needy, or voiceless, and there's no reason for us to use such terms to express the impact of COVID-19 on other communities.

Understanding the psychological factors of how people respond to pandemics is vital to how we frame our institutional narratives. We need counter-narratives to the societal problems associated with pandemics, like the spread of excessive fear, stigmatization, and xenophobia that occurs when people are threatened with infection.

Excessive fear is common as people worry about their loved ones, their health, safety, and finances. Pandemics are expressed psychologically by uncertainty, confusion, and a sense of urgency.

The authenticity and validity of our narratives will be questioned. Conspiracy theories arise to help people make sense of threatening events. Research suggests that these theories appeal to people who want accuracy or meaning and to people who are less able to critically analyze news stories and more likely to believe in 'fake news' and misinformation.

These theories also allow people to feel like they possess rare, important information that others don't, boosting their self-esteem.

We must be careful not to inflame the emotional anxieties people are prone to. When people want to feel special, we should give them something to do and call on their positive values. We would help them live with their fears by helping them act for something, rather than spending their energies overreacting against something.

Instead of relying on negative emotions to make audiences care for, and act in solidarity with, their fellow human beings, we need constrictive narratives that foster deep understanding and address the messages they might be receiving from other sources.

Our job as communicators is to focus on values of collective action, interconnectedness, and the common good. This can mean showing how the pandemic has no borders and no person or group is to blame and how our communities could all be better if we came together.

People are already worried. We shouldn't make the horrors of the pandemic seem so vast that they become too frozen in horror and helplessness to take action. We need people to feel empowered and inspired to act, not angry, resigned, and anxious.

We need people to feel a sense of community, not hunker into isolation and self-concern. We need to inspire positive emotions with our institutions and brands and show what this looks like at every level.

Now is the time to build our story banks. People can't empathize with large, immeasurable entities that are seen as one big blob any more than they can feel emotions for a statistic.

The key is to center our messaging around people, ensuring that our narratives are developed with the help of the people experiencing the biggest challenges.

Those outside the majority, like new immigrants, may experience more adverse psychological consequences from this pandemic than others, like difficulties accessing services because of language barriers, discrimination, and immigration status. The healthcare workers keeping us all alive may not want to be called heroes. We need to ask them what they want for themselves.

There is already a journalistic triage of the messaging being done by those working in the media covering the pandemic. Equity-focused narratives are calling out vital stories in a moment when thousands of other narratives exist.

We know that some current narratives can do more harm than good. War metaphors, for example, may contribute to limiting people's freedoms, the longer that we use them. If we continue to talk about front lines, battle lines, soldiers, troops, invisible enemies, killers, defenses, and infiltration, we may contribute to the justifications that often take place during war.

We need to move away from rigid hierarchies of power, not enable them. Those who have contracted the virus or locations that have been initially impacted can't be seen as enemies, because then the measures taken against them, like surveillance, may be normalized.

We also don't want the natural disasters narrative to take hold and for regular people to feel like nonparticipants in a shared experience, while others "fight on the front lines."

This is also not the time to start talking about the things our institutions haven't done. If we haven't been talking about certain medical activities before the pandemic, now is not the time to start. It can contribute to confusion and take the focus away from what is being done now.

Our narratives will resonate further, we amplify local, trusted community leaders rather than hot takes from spokespeople about issues we're not working on.

Many forward-looking communicators are already doing this. The FrameWorks Institute, a D.C. based think tank, has been offering equity-focused and people-focused COVID-19 framing for practitioners. Thesir suggestions move us away from speaking about vulnerability and instead focus on inclusion.

New initiatives, like Spread Stories, Not the Virus, have helped maintain the focus on individuals. The Public Interest Research Center has been tracking how the COVID-19 narratives unfold, and warning against damaging and demotivating reductions of human nature with tropes of villains, victims and heroes.

It's more important than ever for us to commit to positive values of the common good in our COVID-19 communications, emphasizing our interconnectedness, our shared future, and our unity.

Mariya Parodi is the senior press officer at Amnesty International USA and leads all of the organization's public relations work.

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