Case Study Discussion Questions: The Ethics of Truth and Public Safety during the COVID-19 Pandemic
Updated: Mar 31
This was written for CAS 842: Professional Communication Ethics in the Michigan State University Strategic Communications MA program.
Case Study Discussion Questions
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to dominate news cycles daily, and the media must keep current on trends and information at a preternaturally rapid pace. In addition to attrition, reporters must strive for a work product that presents as accurate and as ethical—devoid of misinterpretation, spin, or bias. Williams and Stroud (2020), in their case study “Producing Fear for the Greater Good? The Ethics of truth and Public Safety during the COVID-19 Pandemic,” raise an ethical issue of statistical misrepresentation. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) claimed in March 2020 that forty percent of hospitalized patients were between 20- and 54-years-old; however, limited public testing and asymptomatic cases were not factored into this reporting. Thus, one could argue this claim may incorrectly characterize the hospitalize risks for this age group because those who have the virus unknowingly would not seek medical treatment (Williams & Stroud, 2020).
Whether a skewed statistic is acceptable (in the interest of public safety) or irresponsible (as misinformation) is the ethical dilemma. To that end, the purpose of this paper is to offer responses to four discussion questions posed in this case study.
Discussion Question 1: Central Values
First, Williams and Stroud (2020) ask: what are the central values in conflict in the decision to use de/contextualized or “spun” statistics? There are several fundamental values at play here: truth; duty; virtue ethics; and politics. Reporters must be tenacious in the pursuit and the verification of truth: data that is flawed or that lacks context is subject to vigorous vetting (Kojah, 2020). Values motivate actions, and democracies are built upon a foundation of education and information (Christians, Fackler, Richardson, Kreshel, & Woods, 2016). Stay-at-home orders, fear, and lack of sports and live entertainment have boosted media consumption—and many Americans believe they have read false information about the pandemic (Hall & Li, 2020; Mitchell & Oliphant 2020). Truth in reporting is vital not only for dissemination, but for reputation management (individually and organizationally). One cannot “cook the books” with facts to justify public safety. Journalists should report the facts as-is—minus contextual cues and spin—and not attempt to translate or decipher for the audience. This need for truth plays into what philosopher Immanuel Kant referred to as a duty-as-imperative that is universally beneficial: right for the individual should be right for all (Christians et al., 2016). The parallel being: one coronavirus statistic is the same for everyone. Do not try to fit it into a box for people. Let the bare facts rule.
Virtue is a key component of ethical inquiry, and “virtue ethics” reveal how a reporter’s ethical character and practical wisdom translates to impartial, civic-centered reporting (Center for Journalism Ethics, n.d., p. 23). Finally, the political connotations of this pandemic continue to rearrange and fortify political divisions; similarly, how one reacts to the crisis often becomes a defacto political statement (Liasson, 2020; Weissert & Lemire, 2020). One may feel pulled or tempted to present information in a way that is congruent with personal politics, with an organization’s political slant, or with specific person or group.
Discussion Question 2: Prioritization of Health
Next, Williams and Stroud (2020) inquire: is there, or should there be, a prioritization of health? What should be prioritized: older or younger adults, or physical or mental health? To answer this question, one can turn to “The Potter Box,” a framework in which ethical dilemmas are filtered through situation, values, facts, principles, loyalties, and judgements (Christians et al., 2016, p. 7). In this case study, the situation is a global pandemic festering in stage one. Although elderly people seem to be the most affected, there are dangers from younger, asymptomatic individuals (who feel “invincible”) spreading the virus (Williams & Stroud, 2020, p. 4). The values in this case study are professional (journalistic duty to truth), social (presenting the same facts to the entire audience, rather than “cherry-picking” facts to report), personal (individual moral compasses that reveal character and morals); and political (divisiveness and party affiliation). To list principles, one can cite Freud (societies differentiate by defining boundaries and taboos), Aristotle (intellectual temperance and proper conduct), Confucius (balanced and benevolent mean between extremes), and Kant (duty for the sake of conscience and obligation (Christians et al., 2016). Journalists have varying loyalties: to themselves (personal standards, career, reputation, competition); to their organization (job security and advancement, competition, pursuit of revenue, and social media capital generation); and to the public (fans, followers, friends, family, and other stakeholders).
Considering this entire compilation, the answers to this question are:
• Yes, public health should be prioritized during a pandemic as a matter of duty and obligation to the public.
• Rather than prioritize age or physical/mental health, journalists have a responsibility to impartiality that navigates extremes while creating a benchmark for truth—including citation and attribution. Analysis come from the infotainment channels, where talking heads often offer disclaimers that information is opinion. But policies, information, trends determine coverage. A journalist should not prioritize; this pandemic is a fluid, dynamic story that changes daily. Follow the news, not the demographics.
Discussion Question 3: Creative Communication
Williams and Stroud (2020) ask: is there a creative way to communicate in a contextualized, truthful way so that young people will take seriously the calls for social distancing without causing undue fear? This question flows like a companion piece to the issue of prioritization of health. Creativity is the compass for direction in this pandemic. Contextualized, truthful reporting (minus fear) can be achieved by utilizing:
• Elaboration Likelihood Model: In the ELM—a dual-process information process—communicators weigh persuasion and argument against the way in which audiences process messages (Samson & Voyer, 2012). The amount of effort expelled by an audience determines degrees of elaboration—which, in this model occurs through two channels: central (cognitive, intellectually engaged, highly involved, evidence-based) or peripheral (weak, imprecise, low-involved, simplicity-driven results) (Samson & Voyer, 2012; McAlister, 2016a; Geddes, 2016). Journalists could use this model to predict how pandemic-related messages would be received by different age groups or generations depending on perception of risk and relevance of needs. Central processing (high elaboration) ultimately leads to behavior change, and peripheral process (low elaboration) results in attitude change. This creative step would find managing editors, desk editors, and reporters pondering cognitive outcomes beginning in the story pitch phase and continuing through development and editing (McAlister, 2016a; Geddes, 2016). Ultimately, the ELM can work for planning and for messaging because persuasion is communication, but not coercion (Yocco, 2014).
• Targeting, Segmenting, and Positioning: When pondering how to report pandemic-level information, one can start with some basic marketing tenets. Surveys are an effective way to engage with an audience and ascertain interest and comfort levels. After date capture, compile and analyze the response data—looking for consistencies, similarities, and potential confounds. Next, divide the audience into smaller segments who share common characteristics and create content-appropriate messaging. It may prove helpful to create audience personals—and this is where one can message to age ranges or mental/physical health constituents without having to prioritize—that serve as placeholders for complex issues. The more a communicator understands an audience, the more they can predict push-back and deliver appropriate messaging (McAlister, 2016b).
• Strategic storytelling: Publish feature profiles of people who tested positive for COVID-19, who have recovered, who know someone who is positive, who is worried, who runs a business, who is scared to return to work, or who is pro/against face coverings. People like to read about people. Accompanied by a great photo, strategic storytelling can help creates silos for complexity in a nonthreatening way. Hard news, with a positive feature-story sidebar, could concurrently inform and assuage anxiety.
• Graphics: User-friendly infographics, charts, or other visual tools can create a pleasing palette for information that is quick to absorb, highly shareable, and compatible with a Millennial and Generation Z preference for digital gratification.
• Interactive media: When posting on social media, one could invite the audience to share their perceptions through comments or surveys. When someone commits to a written statement, he or she is more likely to follow through a sense of commitment or an innate fear of seeming inconsistent (Cialdini, 2006).
• Social proof and authority: Interviewing social media influencers could offer authentic, serious messaging. Younger audiences, especially in the constantly connected, avid “stan” culture of fandom, may take information from a peer more seriously than from what they perceive to irrelevant, frustration-inducing “okay boomer” authors (Madden, Thompson, Powers, & Bote, 2019, p. 1; Lorenz, 2019, p. 2). Influencers and peers provide empirical, social proof and offer a unique authority that is likely to linger based on how much a person identifies with the speaker (Cialdini, 2006).
Discussion Question 4: Nuance Versus Complexity
Finally, Williams and Stroud (2020) ask: how much nuance or complexity should communication about important scientific issues contain, especially if it decreases the message’s persuasive value? If a free press truly is an “enlightenment function,” then reporters must uphold this tradition of transparency and of liberty (Christians et al., 2016, p. 37). Again, it is a reporter’s duty to report the facts, not to determine what the public can handle. But media professionals can mitigate misrepresentation through the aforementioned infographics/charts/illustrations/sidebars. A solution to complexity could be found in a shorter, basic news article that jumps or links to a blog post that offers a longer-form elaboration of the story or issue. Similarly, reporters or organizations could create podcasts, where deeper dives are possible.
The question should not be nuance versus complexity, it should be content that contributes—not content that creates clutter.
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