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COVID communications: what do we know? First in a series of rolling reports

To mark the solstice, Croakey is hosting our annual Twitter Festival #CroakeyREAD, with a focus this year on #CommunicatingCOVID.

Below we provide part one of a rolling wrap of the discussions, led by contributors to a new book, Communicating COVID-19: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, edited by academics in South Africa and Australia, and to be published in coming months by Palgrave Macmillan.

The editors hope the book will be of use to communications and public health scholars, professional health communicators, journalists, public health officials, governments, and policymakers.

At Croakey, we hope the discussions will also be useful for community groups and health, disability and aged care service providers.


Welcome and Acknowledgement of Country

Megan Williams, Croakey Health Media, University of Sydney, @megbastard

Yiradhu marang g’day in #Wiradjuri.

I’m a visitor on #Gadigal land and on behalf of #CroakeyREAD acknowledge ancestors and spirits of this land. I acknowledge Elders of the past. Elders of the present. All Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who give to this #Country.

Several of us are tweeting on #CommunicatingCOVID for #CroakeyREAD #pijmatters #regulatedigitalplatforms #healthequity #globalhealth #COVID19Aus.

For those new to #CroakeyREAD and Croakey Health Media, we are an non-profit independent health media company for social justice (health care access, equity, rights, participation) covering news and stories of under-served populations.


Outline of #CommunicatingCOVID: the point of the book

Monique Lewis, Griffith University, @DrMoniqueLewis
Kate Holland, University of Canberra, @K_Holland18
Eliza Govender, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, @ElizaGovender

Thank you to @MegBastard and @croakeynews. We acknowledge the Traditional custodians of the Aboriginal lands that we are tweeting from – Bundjalung and Ngunnawal countries – unceded lands.

We offer our respect to their elders past and present and extend respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples joining us this afternoon/evening.

Thanks for having us here tonight @CroakeyNews. Last year we thought it was a good idea to bring together communication and other scholars to talk about communicating COVID.

My co-editors @ElizaGovender and @K_Holland18 didn’t realise we were witnessing what was to become the most profoundly communicated and mediatised health event in human history.

As health communications scholars, we felt a book that brought together an interdisciplinary range of scholars was needed. The book focuses on the earlier period of the pandemic, from its outbreak in early 2020 to the end of 2020 and into early 2021.

What was happening in other countries? How were governments responding? What was being communicated? What were people hearing? Did they have a voice in how public health measures were impacting them? Were their voices being listened to?

What was happening in other countries? How were governments responding? What was being communicated? What were people hearing? Did they have a voice in how public health measures were impacting them? Were their voices being listened to?

We envisaged: communications and public health scholars, professional health communicators, journalists, public health officials, governments, policymakers.

We started having regular Zoom meetings to discuss the book and share ideas about contributors, keen to invite scholars from a range of countries and perspectives so the book could speak to different experiences and approaches to the pandemic.

Our invitations were met with much enthusiasm and we are very excited to have such a diverse range of contributions!

Each country has a unique communicative story and experience. The book includes contributions from South Africa, Australia, India, Israel, Italy, New Zealand, Scandinavia, the UK and US.

A special thank you to the inspiring @SusanKrennCCP, Executive Director @johnshopkinsCCP for writing the foreword to this book.

Authors’ diverse locations, including their diff experiences: extended lockdowns, devastating first and second waves that resulted in huge numbers of cases and deaths. Some authors even physically experienced SARS-CoV-2 infection first-hand.

The book has 18 chapters and is organised into three sections: News media at the coalface; Communicating the public health response; and Citizens, social media and digital technologies.

Section 1 examines the role of journalists and news media in constructing meanings about the pandemic, with chapters focusing on public interest journalism, health workers and imagined audiences in COVID-19 news.

Section 2 focuses on the public health response in different countries, with chapters examining community-driven approaches, communication strategies of governments and political leaders, public health advocacy and pandemic inequalities.

Section 2 offers insights into the needs, vulnerabilities and material realities of diverse communities that must be understood and addressed in efforts to communicate PH messages and facilitate community-led solutions to pandemic challenges.

Section 3 examines digital media and technology, with topics re social media sharing of misinformation and memetic humour, crowdsourcing initiatives, the use of data in modelling, tracking and tracing, and strategies for managing uncertainties.

We can’t ignore the importance of making meaningful and tireless efforts to improve communication knowledge and understanding in the pandemic context. This requires governments to value the role played by professional communicators and journalists.

Ironically, during the first year of the pandemic, the conservative government of Australia introduced a 113% fee hike for uni students studying humanities subjects that included communication and journalism. Not ‘job relevant’, apparently!

Strong, ethical leadership and teamwork is central to effective communication in a crisis, where the objective is to gain public trust that leads to behaviour change, self-regulation, and participation and engagement with PH recommendations. Vigilance to #SDOH are fundamental considerations in the public health response. Communication initiatives must be strategic and attentive to inclusivity, also bearing in mind that there are many whom mass media communication forms may not reach.

A strong need for partnerships between health authorities and trusted community organisations to support the provision and uptake of PH info that people perceive as credible and to reconstruct messages for cultural relevance and collective action.

The mobilisation of community led organisations as key partners with government structures ensures ongoing dialogue with and agency for people most severely impacted by COVID-19.

There are many countries whose experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic are not reflected in this collection and the chapters that are included capture a snapshot of a moment in time.

We hope the collection provides an impetus for further research into the ongoing effects of the pandemic, and the fallout from the structural inequities of the vaccination rollout.


The pandemic and public interest journalism – crisis, survival and rebirth?

Megan Williams, University of Sydney and Croakey Health Media, @megbastard

With sincere respect, I share this for #CroakeyREAD #CommunicatingCOVID because in it Kevin Gilbert, Wiradjuri author, artist and leader dates 1965 as a time he communicated outwardly via art. It speaks of sanctions placed on First Peoples too often excluded from being heard.

I first got involved with Croakey News via #JustJustice, a public interest journalism series, as an act of research translation.

I really am motivated by ex LNP QLD leader Lawrence Springborg who said to me, “It’s not me you need to convince about prison health service reform, it’s the voting public.”

So when LNP leader Lawrence Springborg seemed to indicate he would shirk his responsibilities for policy reform and wanted us researchers to become journalists that’s when public interest journalism came to mind. And now #CommunicatingCOVID brings us together like never before.

Our chapter in the book has case studies raising concerns about racial, social and economic injustice and the violation of human rights highlighting urgent need for measures to ensure a strong, sustainable public interest journalism sector.

Researchers out there, do consider adding public interest journalism to your plans for translation. Public interest journalism offers excellent partnerships and creative new ways of working e.g. with Croakey News, CroakeyVOICES, #CroakeyREAD, #JusticeCOVID and #CommunicatingCOVID.

Supporting innovation and development in non-profit journalism sector has such potential for communities’ rights to information and participation in democratic processes

COVID-19 exposes and exacerbates longstanding societal and structural weaknesses AND has brought about wider understanding of the important roles of public interest journalism, as an upstream determinant of health

Yes that’s what Laurence Springborg was getting at – the media as an upstream determinant of health. BUT politics a determinant too. Does journalism have the power of politicians?

I love irony. Except this one hurts. The crisis in funding for public interest journalism right when community relies on media for health information. Or