Diversity and representation in the U.S. officials’ COVID-19 communication: Insights from a presentation at VAKKI symposium

The first conference presentation of the project took place on February 9th at the VAKKI symposium in Vaasa! Together with our collaborator, Merja Koskela, I (Hanna Limatius) presented some initial results of the LanCris project. The presentation (in Finnish) was titled Diversity in the U.S. officials’ COVID-19 communication. In this blog post, I will discuss some of the findings of the study we presented.

The study focuses on press releases and guidance documents published by government officials in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic. The releases were collected from two government websites: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Department of State. Altogether, we analyzed 393 documents. Our goal was to answer the following questions:

1) Whose voices are present in the crisis communication?
2) How are different groups and segments of the population represented?

Voices of crisis communication

A strong governmental or institutional voice is present in the COVID-19 releases of both the CDC and the Department of State. The pronoun “we” is used frequently, sometimes in reference to the authorities themselves, sometimes to the nation as a whole. The governmental voice emphasizes the actions of the United States in the fight against the pandemic, and its responsibility towards both its citizens and the international community.

In addition to this collective voice of authority, individual crisis communicators also have a voice in the releases. For the most part, these individuals – named CDC experts, and politicians like secretary of state Antony Blinken – reaffirm the messages of the institutional voice. However, as both datasets include transcripts of press conferences and interviews, we also get the voices of the journalists asking questions about the government’s measures against COVID-19. As a result, interestingly, the releases also contain perspectives that criticize the government. The presence of these critical voices, and the fact they are not edited out of the official government releases, makes the authorities seem transparent and trustworthy.

Representation and diversity

The authorities’ COVID-19 releases contain references to various minorities and marginalized groups. For example, LGBTQI+ persons, Indigenous Peoples, people with disabilities, and members of ethnic and religious minorities are mentioned. The representation of such groups mostly focuses on their vulnerability, or their specific challenges related to the pandemic. For the most part, minorities and marginalized groups do not have their own voice in the data – rather, their representation is determined by the governmental and institutional voices. Some specific documents are targeted at particular groups – for example, the CDC has published some guidance about vaccines and safety measures in plain language. However, the majority of the releases are not as accessible.

In terms of language use, the U.S. government officials appear to have taken some steps towards using inclusive language. We noted, for example, some instances of gender inclusive language (“pregnant people” as opposed to “pregnant women”), as well as person first language (“people with intellectual and developmental disabilities”).

What’s next?

The results of this initial study offer some interesting starting points for further research.  For example, we plan to look at the communication of government officials in the United Kingdom, and compare it to the U.S. data. We will also investigate issues of representation and diversity in other types of data, such as social media data. Are the same groups represented and included in communication that takes place on different platforms, or are there perhaps some differences? Through social media data, we can also study citizens’ reactions to authorities’ communication. In this way, we can get a better idea of how successful these governments’ actually were in their COVID-19 communication.