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.

Introduction: Jenni Räikkönen

picture of Jenni Räikkönen

Hello! My name is Jenni. I’m currently a doctoral researcher at Tampere University. My dissertation, titled Pronouns separating the UK from the EU: We and us in British newspaper articles and parliamentary debates in 1973–2015, is currently being pre-examined. I will hopefully defend the thesis in spring 2024. After finishing my PhD, I will start working in the LanCris project as a post-doctoral researcher.

My main research interest lies in the political discourse and political language. I have studied presidential speeches, parliamentary debates as well as the speeches of those that are outside the mainstream politics, i.e. activists such as civil rights activists and suffragettes. I have also focused on the language used in newspapers, particularly in the newspaper articles about political topics. As politics and the media are so strongly intertwined, analysis of newspaper articles contributes to the field of political discourse analysis.

Why political discourse?

Because politicians and the media have easier access to the public discussion, they can more easily put forward their world views and influence how the public sees the world. In the field of critical discourse analysis, politics and media are seen as being part of the so-called “elite”, whose language can have a strong effect on our world view. Also, language is the most important tool politicians (and the media) have. Thus, analysis of the language used by politicians and the mainstream media is important.

In the LanCris project I will continue studying political discourse. My main focus will be on the language used by politicians and other public officials. I will also analyse newspaper articles, as they have been – and still are – crucial in spreading information from the decision-makers to the public.

My research plan

First, my focus in the project will be on expressions of certainty and uncertainty in the press releases and official statements of government officials in the United States related to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and newspaper articles related to the Spanish flu in 1918.

Crises always entail that the situation is unclear, and one characteristic of good crisis communication is that the public is informed that not all the facts are known. Thus, I am interested in whether and how decision-makers expressed to the citizens that the situation is unclear. Furthermore, I am interested in whether there are any differences on this regard between the communication strategies used during the COVID-19 and the Spanish flu pandemics.

Second, I will analyse the official governmental press releases in the US and the UK during the COVID-19 and Spanish flu pandemics to see how often and in which types of contexts experts or scientific knowledge is referred to. Are experts referred to when placing new restrictions to citizens, in particular? Or in situations that are very unclear?

Third, I will compare the language used in the British parliamentary debates and press during the Spanish flu epidemic (1918–1920). During the Spanish flu epidemic, there was a war in Europe. Because of the war, the mortality rates or the severity of the epidemic was not openly discussed in the media, at least during the first waves. This was because the information could have been useful to the enemy. I am interested in the similarities and differences in the discussion on the Spanish flu in the two contexts: Were different words used or did, for instance, one focus on the mortality rates while the other, let’s say, on the pre-emptive measures? Was the issue more often (and perhaps more openly) discussed in the parliament than in the newspapers?

Fourth, I am interested in the general development of public communication during health crises. For that end, I would like to analyse the language used in the health campaigns related to the tuberculosis after 1882 and compare the language of those to the health crisis communication during the Spanish flu and COVID-19 pandemics.

In the late 1800s, tuberculosis killed one out of every seven people living in the US and Europe. In 1882, Dr. Robert Koch announced the discovery of Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which is the bacteria that causes tuberculosis. This finding proved that tuberculosis was not hereditary, but an infectious disease. Consequently, educating the public about good hygiene and how the disease spreads became the focus of TB health campaigns. Similarly, good hygiene (such as washing hands, using disinfectant, and covering the mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing) and the spread of the virus were topics that were prominent in the health campaigns during the COVID-19 and Spanish flu pandemics. How were the three campaigns similar or different in terms of language? Was there any development in the language of these campaigns through which the public was educated? If yes, then what type?


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Mikä on ‘LanCris’?

Mikä on LanCris? 

(In English below!)

Suomen Akatemian rahoittamassa tutkimushankkeessamme ’Kieli kriiseissä: Diakroninen näkökulma kolmen eri pandemian julkiseen viestintään (LanCris)’ tutkimme sitä, millaista brittiläinen ja amerikkalainen kriisiviestintä on ollut kolmen eri historiallisesti merkittävän pandemian, tuberkuloosin (1882–1900), espanjantaudin (1918–1919) ja koronavirustaudin (2020–2023), aikana. Erityisesti tarkastelemme sitä, miten viranomaiset viestivät kansalle kriisien aikana.

Hankkeessamme pyrimme vastaamaan esimerkiksi seuraaviin kysymyksiin:

• Miten viranomaisviestintä on muuttunut eri pandemioiden aikana?
• Miten eri yhteiskunnan osa-alueet ja ryhmät on otettu viestinnässä huomioon?
• Miten viranomaiset viittaavat viestinnässään asiantuntijatietoon?

Tutkimuksen aineistoina käytetään mm. sanomalehtiartikkeleita, viranomaisten tiedotteita ja koronan osalta myös sosiaalisesta mediasta kerättyä materiaalia.

Miten tutkimuksen tuloksia voidaan hyödyntää?

Tutkimuksen avulla ymmärrämme paremmin niitä kielellisiä valintoja, joita julkisessa kriisiviestinnässä tehdään. Tästä on hyötyä esimerkiksi silloin, kun etsitään keinoja viestiä ymmärrettävästi eri yhteiskunnan tasoilla ja eri ryhmille. Tutkimuksen kautta pystymme selvittämään, millainen kriisiviestintä on tehokasta ja millaisia asioita viranomaisten tulisi ottaa huomioon, kun he informoivat kansalaisia kriisitilanteesta.

Jaamme tässä blogissa hankkeeseen liittyviä uutisia ja tutkimustuloksia. Blogia päivittävät hankkeen postdoc-tutkijat, Hanna Limatius ja Jenni Räikkönen, sekä hankkeen vastuullinen johtaja, Minna Nevala. Seuraavissa postauksissa esittelemme itsemme ja kerromme tarkemmin tutkimusintresseistämme.

Tervetuloa seuraamaan!

What is ’LanCris’?

Funded by the Academy of Finland, our research project ‘Languaging Crises: Diachronic Perspectives on Public Communication during Three Pandemics’ focuses on public communication in the United Kingdom and the United States during the tuberculosis (1882–1900), Spanish flu (1918-19) and COVID-19 (2020-23) pandemics. More specifically, we study how authorities communicate information about the pandemics to citizens.

In our research, we ask questions such as:
• How has authorities’ communication changed over time and during different pandemics?
• How are different parts of society and different groups of people represented in the authorities’ communication?
• How do authorities refer to expert knowledge in their communication?

The research data for the project consist of, for example, newspaper articles, press releases and government statements, as well as social media data in the case of COVID-19.

Through this research, we can better understand the linguistic and communicative choices involved in public crisis communication. This is helpful, for example, when planning how to communicate information efficiently in different contexts and to different groups of people.

In this blog, we will share our research findings and general news related to the project. The blog is authored by the post-doctoral researchers, Hanna Limatius and Jenni Räikkönen, as well as the Principal Investigator of the project, Minna Nevala. In the following posts, we will introduce ourselves and our research interests in more detail.

We hope you will follow this blog to keep up with our project!