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BEDREHELSE-Bedre helse og livskvalitet

Science communication: Actions and reactions on the 2009 swine flu outbreak

Awarded: NOK 6.0 mill.

Science communication: Actions and reactions on the 2009 swine flu outbreak The project has studied the communication of science based advice in the swine flu pandemic of 2009-2010, and the accompanying mass vaccination measures in Norway. We have explored the health authorities' communication strategies, the priorities of the media, as well as the perceptions and impressions of citizens. The project has taken a holistic approach to studying communication processes, and has used both text/media analysis and different types of interviews as methods. The purpose was to understand the premises, availability and credibility of scientific information in a public health campaign. For one study, we explored people's attitudes to the swine flu vaccine internationally, through a meta-study of qualitative studies, in which we discussed the implications of the primary publications. We found that the public was less concerned about the disease than about side effects of the vaccine. The primary studies we investigated concluded that people were uninformed and that «better» and more «consistent» information about the disease and the vaccine would give higher vaccination rates. We question these conclusions and argue rather that citizens' concerns were understandable and legitimate given the prevailing uncertainty during the pandemic. Thus, it would not be possible for the authorities to provide «better» and more consistent information. Instead, we suggested that authorities should communicate openly and transparently about pandemic uncertainties. The authorities' communication was the theme of two other publications from the project. First, a study of how the government switched between two different modes, respectively a crisis and a risk discourse. While the first emphasizes that danger is immanent and requires immediate action, the other is forward-looking and sees only a possible future threat. The fact that the authorities switched between these two discourses probably made the pandemic confusing to the public. In addition, we looked at the authorities' and media's views of how to mediate a case like the swine flu. We found that the authorities' communication strategy made assumptions about the media which, according to media representatives, were not accurate. Other parts of the project took on the media coverage. In one study, we investigated the mediated reactions to the media coverage itself, which largely argued that the dramatic rhetoric was causing panic. Not many bothered to document any such panic, however, and consequently we claimed that the swine flu was an example of the so-called «third person effect», that is, the tendency to think that everyone else is more strongly affected by media messages than what oneself is. Furthermore, we looked at the commentators' texts during the pandemic. Here we found that commentators explained and contextualized, moderated and motivated, and consequently we argued that their efforts alone should moderate the impression that the media was «sensationalist». At the same time, much of the media coverage was in fact very dramatic, so rather than sensational media we claimed that the swine flu displayed schizophrenic media. A stereotypical image of the media also emerged in a study we made of what ordinary citizens remember from the pandemic. We found that many had forgotten some of the authorities' key messages, including the advice that everyone should be vaccinated. Nevertheless, they judged the government?s efforts during the pandemic as satisfactory, while they believed the media had exaggerated needlessly. Finally, we studied the authorities' assumptions about the population, the «public» of the research communication in this case, during the pandemic. The willingness to emphasize the seriousness of the disease, as well as the decision to mass vaccinate (despite the relatively harmless nature of the disease) was heavily criticized by many. The authorities, however, seem not to have taken such criticisms to heart. We ask whether this is something they must and should do, in order to preserve the population?s trust in the future. Seen holistically, we found that the swine flu was not a particularly holistic communication episode. As mentioned, much of the research on the communication of the pandemic has called for «better» or «clearer» communication, but we believe such recommendations are reductionist; they do not acknowledge just how complex situations like this one really are. A communicative lesson from this pandemic, we argue, should be to forfeit the idea that there are ready-to-use «keys» for success in this area. We must acknowledge that such episodes are complex, messy, and anything but ideal, and nurture the attitudes and attributes that let us maneuver them as effectively as we can.

The project, which we call "Science communication: Actions and reactions on the 2009 swine flu outbreak", is a cross-disciplinary, explorative study of how scientific knowledge travel and is transformed from a scientific institution (The Norwegian Institu te of Public Health) through the mass media and is received by policy makers and the general public. We will follow the process of communication of medical knowledge about the H1N1 Swine flu outbreak of 2009 and the related preventive measures taken. We will explore how the medical scientists at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health experience that scientific knowledge is transformed as it is broadcasted through the media and finally how it is understood and valued by politicians and the public. Base d on a media search we will select a small number of news reports and analyse the message in these news reports in comparison to e.g. scientific reports and press releases from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health. Subsequently, we will interview the involved scientists to explore their motivation and experiences of the interaction with the journalists and political decision makers. We will also interview newspaper editors about the media strategy and understanding of the swine flu incident. And final ly we will interview political decision makers and members of the public regarding their assessment of the published stories and how their own reactions and actions were connected to the information from the Institute of Public Health or the news stories. Thus, we have multiple angels to our study of science communication; the premises, the clarity and the credibility of scientific information in a public health campaign.

Publications from Cristin

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BEDREHELSE-Bedre helse og livskvalitet