A protective mask: the symbol of the corona pandemic.

Communicating the pandemic

We’ve been caught in the vice of the COVID-19 pandemic since March. Many employees at our university are currently working from home. The pandemic marks a fundamental turning point in the way modern society sees itself.
A protective mask: the symbol of the corona pandemic.
Image: Bastienne Karg

A commentary by Georg Ruhrmann

The ongoing pandemic is a challenge. From a virologic and epidemiological perspective, it’s highly dynamic; and from a sociological standpoint, it’s highly complex. We don’t yet know whether and when we’ll be able to contain the virus – nor do we know how certain population groups will behave in society if the pandemic continues through the winter.

Is the worst of the corona crisis behind us?

A crisis is often seen as the climax or turning point of a risky and dangerous development. But have we even reached the climax of the ongoing corona crisis? That’s where opinions are divided. A specific, conflictive and controversial debate is raging as to the risks of the pandemic and its consequences from an intergroup, organizational and societal perspective.

The contested issues are constantly repeated in the media: How reliable are our information sources in the face of targeted disinformation on social media and video platforms [1]? How contagious is the virus? Who and how many people are infected? When will there be a vaccine and how long do antibodies protect you after fighting off the disease? What’s next for the economy? How safe are jobs and occupational safety standards in various sectors?

Communication from an expert perspective seems paternalistic

In many media, technical terms and statistics are presented in such a way that you might think all listeners, viewers and users are easily able to follow. But is that actually the case? Probably not. One of the reasons is state crisis communication; just as we saw in the last pandemic (swine flu) ten years ago, information in the current crisis is being communicated from an expert perspective [2]. This form of communication seems paternalistic and contradictory to many people.

Scientific statements about a risk are interpreted on the basis of each individual’s normative beliefs [3], attitudes, prior knowledge and views. They are understood and misunderstood. The same problem can be seen in politics. After all, decisions in times of crisis are not made by scientific experts, but rather policy-makers and legislators. Some politicians have communicated – and sometimes without opposing voices in the media – in a way that suggests they know exactly what is needed right now. And calls for a return to normality have been gathering momentum since the end of March. Return? Normality?

First political lessons to be learned

We can already learn our first political lessons from the measures taken to date [4] – not least because the effects of political crisis management can sometimes be interpreted for populist agendas that may serve to worsen the crisis. This is the case when, by way of example, the partial relaxation and judicial repeal of effective preventive measures and interventions [5] has not exactly led to the emergence of a »second wave«. Some of the interventions have since been vociferously criticized by some groups.

What next? In addition to the exemplary hygiene standards in some places, such as here in Jena [6], and mobile working, flexible working hours and occupational regulations, we particularly need more scientific insights. We have to comprehend the virology of the novel coronavirus and gain a better understanding of the dynamics of the pandemic, the COVID-19 disease and its profound economic, political and social consequences. To this end, we not only have to develop our established epidemiological approaches, but also conduct international and intercultural long-term comparative studies in the fields of social and economic research [7].

Social debate is needed

Above all, however, we need a broad social debate as to how a modern society’s self-image is shaped in times of crisis. The social sciences will conduct theoretical and empirical analysis of the communication of risky decisions and also examine the possibility of an evidence-based transfer of knowledge [8].

About the author

Prof. Dr. Georg Ruhrmann, studierte Philosophie, Molekularbiologie und Soziologie in Marburg und Bielefeld. Seit 1998 ist er Professor für Grundlagen der medialen Kommunikation und der Medienwirkung der Universität Jena. Prof. Dr. Georg Ruhrmann, studierte Philosophie, Molekularbiologie und Soziologie in Marburg und Bielefeld. Seit 1998 ist er Professor für Grundlagen der medialen Kommunikation und der Medienwirkung der Universität Jena. Image: Bettina Förster

Prof. Dr Georg Ruhrmann studied philosophy, molecular biology and sociology in Marburg and Bielefeld. Some of his main research areas concern health and science communication.

He was promoted to the Professorship of Mediated Communication and Media Effects at the Frie-drich Schiller University Jena in 1998. Ruhrmann has been a member of the Commission for Risk Research and Perception at the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) since 2009. From 2009 to 2016, he led research projects within the German Research Foundation (DFG) Priority Pro-gramme 1409 »Science and the General Public«. In 2019, he taught courses within the Security Management master’s programme at the Berlin School of Economics and Law (HWR).




References cited in the text

[1] Landesanstalt für Medien NRW (2020). Informationslage und Meinungsbilder zu COVID-19: Auf der Suche nach Verlässlichkeit. Forschungsschwerpunkt Informationsintermediäre - Spezial. Ausgabe 6: Juli 2020. Düsseldorf: Landesanstalt für Medien NRW https://www.medienanstalt-nrw.de/themen/intermediaere.htmlExternal link

[2] Guenther, L., G. Ruhrmann und J. Milde (2011). Pandemie: Wahrnehmung der gesundheitlichen Risiken durch die Bevölkerung und Konsequenzen für die Risiko- und Krisenkommunikation. Berlin: Forschungsforum Öffentliche Sicherheit, Schriftenreihe Sicherheit Nr. 7. https://www.sicherheit-forschung.de/forschungsforum/schriftenreihe_neu/7/index.htmlExternal link.

[3] Rothmund, T., M. Gollwitzer, P. Nauroth und J. Bender (2017). Motivierte Wissenschaftsrezeption. Psychologische Rundschau 68 (3), 193-197; https://doi.org/10.1026/0033-3042/a000364External link.

[4] Forman, R., R. Atun, M. McKee, und E. Mossialos (2020). 12 Lessons learned from the management of the coronavirus pandemic. Health Policy, 124(6), 577-580. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.healthpol.2020.05.008External link.

[5] Dehning, J., J. Zierenberg. P. Spitzner, M. Wibral, J. P. Neto, M. Wilczek und V. Priesemann (2020). Inferring change points in the spread of COVID-19 reveals the effectiveness of interventions. Science 10 Jul 2020: Vol. 369, Issue 6500, eabb9789 https://doi.org/10.1126/science.abb9789External link-

[6] Mitze, T., R. Kosfeld, J. Rode und K. Wälde (2020). Maskenpflicht und ihre Wirkung auf die Corona-Pandemie: Was die Welt von Jena lernen kann https://www.zm-online.de/news/politik/was-die-welt-von-jena-lernen-kann/External link. Langfassung: https://www.iza.org/publications/dp/13319/face-masks-considerably-reduce-covid-19-cases-in-germany-a-synthetic-control-method-approachExternal link.

[7] Ifo Schnelldienst (2020. Das gemeinsame Interesse von Gesundheit und Wirtschaft: Eine Szenarienrechnung zur Eindämmung der Corona-Pandemie. Eine gemeinsame Studie des ifo Instituts (ifo) und des Helmholtz-Zentrums für Infektionsforschung (HZI). https://www.ifo.de/publikationen/2020/article-journal/das-gemeinsame-interesse-von-gesundheit-und-wirtschaftExternal link.

[8] Maier, M., J. Milde, S. Post, L. Guenther, G. Ruhrmann und B. Barkela (2016). Communicating scientific evidence: Scientists', journalists' and audience expectations and evaluations regarding the representation of scientific uncertainty. Communications 41(3), 239-264. https://doi.org/10.1515/commun-2016-0010External link.