Building Public Trust in the Middle of a Crisis

By D. Rachael Bishop

If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that clear communication is the foundation for building public trust. This truth is absolutely vital if people are to effectively address another crisis building on the horizon — climate change.

So said scientists and journalists during a panel discussion, “Science and Journalism – Communicating in Coronavirus and Climate Change,” convened in early October by the Ireland America Science Forum (IASF), and co-sponsored by the Embassy of Ireland USA, Ireland Network DC (IN-DC), and Deborah Brosnan & Associates.

The discussion was moderated by environmental scientist, Dr. Deborah Brosnan, chair of IASF and president/founder of Deborah Brosnan & Associates. It featured Dr. Rita Colwell, former director of the National Science Foundation and professor at the University of Maryland; Andrew Revkin, director of the Initiative on Communication and Sustainability at the Earth Institute and former environment reporter of The New York Times; and Brian O'Donovan, Washington correspondent for RTÉ News, Irish public broadcast news. Harry Lester, counselor for Trade, Investment and Innovation at the Embassy of Ireland, provided opening remarks on behalf of Ambassador Daniel Mulhall.

The discussion was part of an ongoing series of online conversations on key science topics organized by the IASF.

Colwell opened her remarks by saying in just six to seven months, scientists and medical professionals have made enormous headway in understanding the public health crisis that is COVID-19.

“We have sequenced more than 400 strains of the virus ... we have learned how it attacks the human body in very devious and multiple ways. Not just the lungs, but the heart, kidney, liver and brain. We have developed certain treatments that help in the most severe cases of COVID-19.”

She explained that in this public health crisis, the essential knowledge is not only coming from scientists, but also from many professionals in different disciplines. Family physicians and emergency room doctors track patients’ symptoms and how they respond to different treatments. Scientists and workers at wastewater treatment plants are tracking and advising public health officials when they find COVID-19 present in sewage plants for towns, universities, and other communities – which has helped officials make decisions that help slow the spread of the disease. Behavioral scientists are advised how to communicate with the public to help people understand the importance of vaccines so they will be accepted.

“The public is absorbing all this and understands [the solution is not coming] just from a scientist working in a laboratory; it’s the entire community,” said Colwell. “A solution will come collaboratively.”

But she said she is also worried by the negativity she hears. Brosnan agreed.

“Science has been predicting climate change for 30 years and studying it longer than that,” said Brosnan. “We’ve also been predicting the emergence of zoonotic diseases like coronavirus and indeed we had some early warnings with SARS and Ebola, but here we are.”

The panelists agreed that when it comes to a crisis like COVID-19, or climate change, it is essential to provide public health information in a transparent way. Problems arise, however, when information is withheld, or used to achieve personal interests that don’t prioritize public health.

O’Donovan said in the United States, President Donald Trump has not provided clear or trustworthy information.

“In February, he was telling us it was ‘just a little flu,’” said O’Donovan. “From Bob Woodward’s book Rage, we now know that Trump knew much more about the science of COVID-19 than he was letting on.” Trump was downplaying the risks at the outset and then started “flip-flopping.”

“Trump spoke about ingesting bleach, taking a little known malaria drug, and various other strange cures and potions, constantly looking for quick fixes,” said O’Donovan. “Then he was talking about reopening business and schools, getting things back in gear.”

As of October 2020, more than 8 million Americans have become sick and more than 224,000 have died. Trump’s reaction to the crisis was to undermine his own scientific experts, said O’Donovan. Trump replaced Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, who has advised six U.S. presidents, with Dr. Scott Atlas, a former Stanford University professor with no expertise in the fields of infectious disease or immunology, but who is willing to promote Trump’s positions.

As Washington correspondent for RTÉ News, O’Donovan covers how President Trump’s words and actions influence the public.

“I interview his followers and they shrug their shoulders ... say it’s all made up. Mask wearing has become a political thing,” said O’Donovan. “I agree with the importance of communicating science, but there are some people out there who take science, manipulate it, and use it to their own ends and that can have a very damaging and worrying effect because it can trickle down and seep into those who follow.”

Similarly, over decades, there have been those who have downplayed the threats climate change poses and manipulated discourse to create division, suspicion, and distrust.

Revkin said climate is a more difficult public health message to communicate as people are not\ very good at envisioning threats that unfold slowly over time. COVID-19, by contrast, spread so fast and has been so devastating that it is creating a different kind of public reaction.

“During the middle of a crisis ... people tend to gravitate more to [their] cultural group that they identify with. People tend to retreat and find sources of information that suit [them]. I think we need to ask do I really know this, or am I just feeling this way because it’s what my tribe believes? What can I do to spread insights that are more useful? One that helps people appreciate the difference between reality and fantasy?”

Revkin began reporting on climate change in the 1980s and has published thousands of articles in The New York Times, magazines and other news sources. The role of conventional news media is still important, he says, but other pathways are changing how we communicate.

COVID-19 is a case in point. In January 2020, two applied engineers at John’s Hopkins University first saw a worrisome Tweet from a public health scientist. They set up a website and began tracking communications from Wuhan, China, regarding COVID-19. This website opened a window on a public health crisis and provided critical communications capacity.

There are other online channels that Revkin finds deeply concerning.

“[Social media] is designed to validate you or infuriate you, and it’s actually a mix. If you don’t understand this you’re being hijacked every moment,” he said speaking of the blue thumbs up, hearts, and check marks that subtly – and sometimes not so subtly – divide viewers. Revkin says social media is “toying with dangerous disinformation.”

When it comes to climate change specifically, he says the public is being truly misinformed – only 0.16% of climate change research has gone to social science and communication science.

“The way forward in a crisis environment, to me, is about boosting the capacity to hold meaningful conversations,” said Revkin.

Brosnan shared an experience in which her work in supporting an endangered species in a community pitted scientific data against local jobs and potential economic losses. She decided to invite the scientists to the community.

“They debated in front of the public and the affected communities, and one scientist made a presentation and said, ‘the data is weak, you should use it as a guide.’ People could have said this was a waste of money, but instead they started to think about what they could do to fill in the gaps. Now they were part of the debate, and the solution.”

“I think many of us have felt we need to communicate better. What I am hearing today are three words: conversation, community, responsibility.”

D. Rachael Bishop is a science journalist and communications professional based in the Washington, D.C. metro area. Look for her on LinkedIn or contact her via