Crisis Narratives during a Hypothetical Public Health Crisis
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of good communication in a crisis. In a new article published in NCA’s Journal of Applied Communication Research, Brooke Fisher Liu, Lucinda Austin, Yen-I Lee, Yan Jin, and Seoyeon Kim discuss how crisis narratives about an infectious disease affect the public’s response to a crisis.
This article builds on work by Matthew W. Seeger and Timothy L. Sellnow in Narratives of Crisis: Telling Stories of Ruin and Renewal. The book identifies five crisis narratives: blame, renewal, victim, hero, and memorial. Blame narratives are those that focus on who is responsible for a crisis. Renewal narratives emphasize how the community will recover after a crisis. News media often rely on victim narratives, which demonstrate the harm caused by a crisis. Hero narratives focus on leaders, first responders, or average citizens who have a positive impact during the crisis in some way. Finally, memorial narratives focus on what a crisis means in terms of the history of the community and how the community stays strong during its aftermath.
In 2018, the authors surveyed 1,050 U.S. adults about a fictional infectious disease outbreak that was widespread, somewhat unpredictable, difficult to control, and severe. The participants were asked to imagine that such an outbreak was occurring, then they read a local news story that used one of the five crisis narratives described above or read non-narrative information about the crisis. Participants then completed a survey that asked about their likelihood of taking a protective action (e.g., hand washing or avoiding sick people), where they would see information about the crisis (e.g., newspaper or TV), what emotions they would experience (e.g., anger or sadness), who they perceived as responsible for the crisis (the government or other circumstances), and how credible they deemed the information they had read.
Liu, Austin, Lee, Jin, and Kim found few direct effects from the narratives. They found that crisis narratives were connected to sadness, but not to other emotions. They also found that participants who read crisis narratives were more likely to blame the government for the crisis, particularly if they read the blame narrative. Participants who read the blame narrative were also more likely to believe that the information was not credible than participants who read other narratives or no narrative. Participants who read the renewal narrative found the information more credible than those who read the blame narrative. Victim narratives elicited significantly more sadness than hero narratives; however, sadness induced by both victim and hero narratives affected information seeking and subsequent protective action taking.
Conclusion and Implications
Although the narratives did not have direct effects, other factors (emotions, information credibility, and attribution of responsibility) helped shape how participants responded. Liu, Austin, Lee, Jin, and Kim suggest that the results point to the importance of sadness as a motivating factor for taking protective action and seeking information during a crisis. Victim and hero narratives elicited the most sadness, which motivated people to take protective action and seek information. Liu, Austin, Lee, Jin, and Kim also conclude that while blame narratives may lead to blame being placed on the government for a crisis, participants found such narratives to be less credible. Thus, individuals who read blame narratives needed to seek additional, credible information to take protective action.
Because of the effectiveness of hero and victim narratives, Liu, Austin, Lee, Jin, and Kim argue that public health officials may want to work with news media on credible hero and victim narratives. In the case of blame narratives, they suggest that public health officials should position themselves as the source of credible information. Furthermore, because renewal narratives were perceived as credible, public health officials might consider using renewal narratives when distributing information. In conclusion, this study offers insight into how public health authorities can use narratives during a crisis.