Victoria University researchers have pored over transcripts of the 1pm media briefings that became routine viewing for Kiwis this year, to search for communication lessons for future crises.
“We’ve been widely and rightly praised for having an evidence-based response to the pandemic, but our response wasn’t just about facts and numbers,” Dr Courtney Addison said.
“It reflects profound ideas about right and wrong, about life worth, and about what we owe each other as citizens.
“We’re now asking how questions of right, wrong, good, bad, obligation and solidarity manifest in our leader’s explanations of the pandemic – and their response to it.”
Addison and masters student Dinithi Bowatte were already studying Kiwis’ scientific knowledge about Covid-19 when, halfway through 2020, she and colleague Associate Professor Rebecca Priestley turned to how that science was being explained to the public.
She’s since teamed up with fellow anthropologist Dr Jane Horan to interview Kiwis, while Priestley – a prominent science communicator in her own right – has worked with media studies scholar Dr Alex Beattie to analyse the briefings transcripts.
That work has all led to a project Addison is leading with Bowatte, focused on the role that ethics played in the briefings.
More specifically, they wanted to understand how the “ethics of anthropology” applied.
That was the notion that local factors – be they social, cultural, political or economic – determined how we decided what was good or worthwhile.
“This perspective also treats ethics as something that we work out through our relationships – as we try to do right by each other and ourselves,” Addison explained.
“So, by applying this theory to our Covid-19 response, we’re asking what moral reasoning matters here in Aotearoa.”
In the new study, just funded by a Health Research Council grant, Bowate will examine the transcripts to highlight what’s known as “moral talk”.
“That’s references to good, bad, right, wrong, risk, care, solidarity, responsibility, best interest, and so on,” Addison explained.
The researchers sought to identify prominent themes, such as whether some explanations were given more weight than others – and if this changed over time.
Bowatte said some interesting shifts had already been documented by researchers.
“What’s been striking this year is the research coming out showing that Kiwis’ trust in science, scientists and even politicians has gone up as a consequence of our successful national response to Covid-19,” she said.
“That’s really fascinating because very easily that trust could have plummeted, as we’ve seen elsewhere around the world.”
She said Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield’s 1pm briefings ultimately proved a big part of how Kiwis accessed and made sense of scientific knowledge.
“I’m really interested to know what it was about the way they talked, or the things they said, that convinced the public to trust that they knew what they were doing,” she said.
“I think understanding these things could be helpful for the wider area of science communication, as we have serious scientific issues like climate change that need to be talked about – but it’s important that we talk about them in a way that empowers the wider public.
“The communication coming out of our national response was powerful enough to get Kiwis to effectively ‘unite against Covid-19’.
“It would be awesome if we could learn from this experience to prepare for the inevitable challenges we will need to unite against in the future.”
Prime Minister’s chief science advisor Prof Juliet Gerrard agreed Kiwis’ trust in experts made a “massive difference” in overcoming the threat.
Risk communication was one of the topics her international counterparts now asked her about most frequently.
“You can have the best science advice in the world – but as several countries have tragically illustrated, this makes no difference whatsoever if nobody trusts it.”
The Ministry of Health’s own chief science adviser, Dr Ian Town, similarly credited Bloomfield and Ardern’s careful, unifying messaging from the Beehive podiums – but also the efforts of all Kiwis this year.
“The team of five million won the day.”