Why waste time in a pandemic analysing language? Surely there are more important things to be doing in a time of global crisis than thinking about words? The thing is that how we talk about COVID-19 affects how we respond to it. The framing of the stories we share and the words we use, influences what we think about the pandemic, how we believe it should be tackled and what we believe we can personally do to help.
Narrative and framing experts from all over the world are figuring out the most helpful language on the fly. There are a growing number of great framing resources and international collaborations — last week, 40 of us came together on a call to compare notes.
So far, so good, but over the last few weeks, I’ve realised that even as a narrative expert, I’ve been sharing Covid content that has reinforced negative frames. Things are moving so quickly and my brain is often overwhelmed by information, that it can be hard to apply normal critical awareness to the language I use. Identifying framing principles has really helped me limit my use of damaging frames, so I thought it might be helpful to share eight of the most helpful insights that I’ve come across….
And if you aren’t up for yet another hot take on Covid-19, the short version of the below is:
Craft messages that evoke care, agency, the common good, solidarity and interdependence, NOT messages that evoke fear, division, passivity, fatalism and individualism.
1. This crisis has different phases. Adapt your framing accordingly
Cultural strategist Alice Sachrajda suggests that one way of framing the pandemic is as a book, that has yet to be written. In her words:
“Just as every story has a beginning, middle and an end, so does the pandemic. But the difference is, this is a story that hasn’t been written yet. It’s an open book and we all have a role to play in shaping the story that unfolds.”
Just as a book has a story arc, so does the pandemic; we need different kinds of frames and narratives at different stages.
Beginning: frames and messages that make people feel reassured, supported and interconnected. We need stories of mutuality, generosity and local action, in addition to ones that hold governments to account and highlight the importance that everyone in our communities has the care and support they need.
Middle: stories of kindness and reciprocity will be important. The personal/financial impact will be hitting hard. We need to make sure responses are equitable and voices aren’t missing from the story. People may also be ready to start to hear about seeds of a new future and to clock the new beliefs and behaviours that are emerging.
End: messages that motivate, galvanise and inspire people. This is the time for the stories of the new structures, behaviours and mindsets we want to come out of this dark time. In reality this is saga not a one novel, and the end of this story will be the beginning of another.
Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen lots of missteps here. People in their enthusiasm for change and desire to find some hope in tough times, have been emphasising the “silver linings” and “opportunities” of this moment, usually to great offense and backlash. Eco-fascism made a resurgence. It is inappropriate to celebrate say, the decline in carbon emissions, when these have come at the expense of lives and livelihoods.
This is not to say that those of us working for wider systemic change should stop and wait. Vested interests are lobbying hard all over the world as you read this to influence governments’ emergency spending and legislation. The work of progressive movements has never been more important. In this moment we need to be sensitive and self aware about how we link this work to Covid-19, as well as engage in new forms of solidarity and support. The moment for broader narratives will come, and we should be ready with them when it does.
2. Emphasise the common good over individual protection
Focusing on individual protection can lead to people hunkering down psychologically as well as practically at a time when we need community-mindedness more than ever.
Paternalistic messaging also has a tendency to either provoke an obedient, passive mindset, or psychological reactance, which is when people react against the perception that they are personally being denied choice by authority figures. Neither response is helpful at this moment, when we need people to feel a sense of agency and to act responsibly.
Instead of giving instructions about how to protect yourself, try talking about how this affects us all and how ‘we’ can protect our communities.
“When we wash our hands and keep our distance, we protect everyone in our community. Let’s come together by staying apart.”
“Protect yourself and fight the virus by washing your hands and practicing social distancing. It is not safe or responsible to leave your home at this time.”
3. Celebrate solidarity over spreading panic.
Many of us will be operating from extreme anxiety in this moment. Fanning the flames of fear isn’t helpful. The more we share and tell stories about panic and selfishness, the more we will behave selfishly and act from fear. Sharing stories of solidarity will give people hope, reassurance and activate them to help where they can. We need more care, not more catastrophising.
Uplift in Ireland, suggest this messaging:
“No matter who we are or where we come from, we are all in this together. If each one of us makes a change to protect ourselves, our families, our neighbours and communities, we will protect each other”
“This crisis is going to get much worse and people are being selfish. In a few weeks, we could descend into mayhem and anarchy.”
See Uplift’s Covid-19 framing guide for more info.
4. When advocating for vulnerable groups stress the moral collective duty
When calling for access and protection for vulnerable groups, stress universalism. Use language that’s about ensuring that all of us can access the healthcare and support that we need.
Research shows that appealing to our moral sense and activating shared values is a powerful motivating force. When telling stories of vulnerable groups who are suffering disproportionately, appeal to people’s sense of morality. FrameWorks suggest using language like, “The right thing to do is ensure we all have what we need to be well”
Previous FrameWorks research on framing poverty in the UK has highlighted the potency of making a moral case. This means referring to the shared moral obligations we all have to each other and evoking compassion, rather than pity, to remind us of our shared human dignity.
Framing expert Anat Shenker-Osorio suggests language like:
We pull through by pulling together, like we have done in the past. This means demanding the care and paid time every one of us needs.
See Anat’s Covid-19 Messaging Document for loads more framing insight.
5. Pick your metaphors with care.
Metaphors matter. They enable cognitive short-cuts in our brains that help us make sense of complexity. They can also inadvertently trigger unhelpful values and behaviours. The Workshop in New Zealand has done a great job of listing metaphors to avoid and embrace in this time. Do also check out their useful COVID-19 Framing Guide
For more on metaphor also check out this helpful piece from PIRC.
6. Balancing respect for expertise vs acceptance of authoritarianism
In this period of lockdown, governments all over the world are invoking emergency powers. Populations need to obey the advice of experts, trust in institutions, respect physical distancing measures etc. AND it’s also important to ensure that this doesn’t herald in an acceptance of authoritarianism and the longer-term curtailment of rights
Firstly we need to watch our words as per all the above points. Research shows that framing that draws on nationhood, individualism, war and defence, can result in anti-democratic solutions¹.
Where possible we should seek to evoke values like compassion and benevolence in our communications, rather than values like obedience and conformity. We should always stress their temporary nature.
These temporary guidelines help us protect everyone in our communities.
You need to obey government guidelines to stay safe, so we can win the battle against Covid-19
7. Beware of intergenerational divisiveness
It’s no surprise that people feel it’s permissible to be divisive on an age-basis, given that governments are doing it (see this briefing from the Institute of Gerontology for the dangers of this approach).
I’m seeing this everywhere at the moment from progressive intellectuals talking about the new intergenerational reckoning where the old will finally have to pay their debt to the young who will have sacrificed so much to keep them safe during the pandemic; to those onion/ lemon/ “parents being hilariously superstitious on WhatsApp” memes; to the “all Gen Y are irresponsible party animals” content — cue videos of spring break in Florida or gatherings in London parks.
Last week, I found myself sharing a load of those comedy tweets about superstitious older people and WhatsApp. They initially felt funny and on the money, but I found myself feeling increasingly uncomfortable doing this. I realised that none of this age-related divisiveness helps us right now. Older people are being forced into isolation, dependence and are scared for their lives, this is not the time to laugh at them and tell them they need to pay back their collective debt to the young. Young people are being denied access to education, income and friendship, this is not the time to label them as irresponsible and carefree. We need stronger communities where we respect difference and come together, not divided ones where we blame, accuse and disrespect each other.
8. Who is missing?
Over the coming months, we all need to keep asking whose voices are missing? Who is invisible? This week I found out about Detained Voices which shares stories of people in immigration detention centres in the UK. Here’s an extract from a story on the site.
“If I feel like I have symptoms (and I do all the time) I am not going to tell them because if you do, they will take you to the block, to solitary confinement. They won’t test you, and they will leave you there. They don’t want these officers to find out that there is a virus outbreak here. A lot of people feel like they are ill in here. People are not feeling well, they are coughing and they are scared.”
The missing voices could be the voices of migrant workers in India embarking on 650km journeys home on foot to try and survive, or those in overcrowded quarantined refugee camps in Greece, or the isolated person at the end of your street. This is a time for those of us with more privilege to share our platforms. This might be as simple as posting these kinds of stories on WhatsApp groups, or helping them find larger audiences, so that all of us get the help we need in this challenging time.
We are all storytellers
We are all storytellers. We have more power than we know in the stories we tell and share. In the early phases of the global rupture brought on by COVID-19, there is an opportunity to tell stories that bring us together, that generate empathy, that activate agency, highlight inequality and help support a more just, caring world. But it could go either way. Without awareness, we can perpetuate narratives that generate division, fear and hopelessness. This is a time of epic change. The words we use and the stories we tell will have huge power in determining the direction of that change.
 Rossmann, Constanze, Lisa Meyer, and Peter J. Schulz. “The mediated amplification of a crisis: Communicating the A/H1N1 pandemic in press releases and press coverage in Europe.” Risk Analysis 38.2 (2018): 357–375.