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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Communication in the Time of COVID-19: Some Reflections on Ethics

two people talking by telephones connected to the earth

two people talking by telephones connected to the earth

Rohit Chopra

Photo Credit: Pixabay

Rohit Chopra is an associate professor in the Department of Communication at Santa Clara University and a Faculty Scholar at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are his own.


Along with its massive costs in terms of human lives, impact on families, and economic devastation, the ongoing global crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic will force us to confront many deeply cherished beliefs and assumptions, for instance, about individual self-interest and societal obligations, the relative value of economic and social rationales for particular policy actions, and our responsibility to our fellow human beings. The crisis will also foreground the issue of the civic and ethical responsibility of different sectors of social, cultural, and economic life towards both the national collective and the global community that we inhabit. When the proverbial dust settles, organizations and corporations involved in any aspect of communication, from legacy media firms to the social media platforms, should necessarily be central to this conversation as should the communication policies of government agencies, hospitals, and the like. 

The case for such reflection is not just a function of the current crisis. Legacy media, such as print and television, have long been the object of criticism for prioritizing profits and sensationalism at the cost of serious reporting. Social media platforms have received significant attention in the last few years given their role in spreading fake news and their weaponization in undermining elections and democratic processes across the world. The Cambridge Analytica scandal involving Facebook and the use of WhatsApp to foment violence against minorities in India are two obvious examples. Complicating this situation is the fact that in many countries, traditional journalism is in a state of crisis, caused in no mean measure by the impact of social media firms, their professed commitment to some chimera of neutrality, and the readiness of state actors to adopt these platforms for their own agendas. Yet all of this has come to a boil in a very real sense over the past few weeks as the problems caused by the spread of the virus have been compounded by missteps in communication and, to an extent, by the very structure and political economy of the global media system.

In broad strokes, these are the communication patterns that have emerged, seen here in the U.S. as well as internationally.

Social media has been a double-edged sword, a source for both vital information—from experts and those on the ground—and fake news, such as cures for the virus or fake videos of Wuhan circulating on WhatsApp. Well before the shift in the view of authorities in the U.S. about the necessity of wearing masks, the idea was circulating on social media and has clearly had an impact. As of Wednesday, April 1, N95 masks were selling in a San Francisco hardware store for the criminal price of $40 each. By the morning of April 2, all face masks were sold out at Home Depot. 

A thorny ethical challenge raised by social media discourse is that legitimate, informed insights from credible sources are mixed in with conspiracy theories generated by various fringe subgroups, radical libertarians who see government as the enemy, and the like. Social media firms like Facebook and Twitter have also long played a reprehensible game of strategically and inconsistently invoking either user safety or freedom of speech to suit their profit-seeking ends or to comply with the dictates of a particular government. Critics of the practices of social media firms have long maintained that the platforms need to take far more responsibility—or need to be made to bear such responsibility. That becomes more than urgent now as the COVID-19 virus heralds another aspect of the reality we have to live with going forward.

The mainstream print and broadcast media, whether in the U.S. or India, have not, for the most part, broken any stories or presented any radically new information about the COVID-19 virus and its impact. Their reporting has mostly been second-order, a reorganization and filtering of statistics, statements by authorities, and projections of deaths. While most stories put out by the mainstream media seem to have nothing significantly troubling from an ethical point of view, the headlines, however, have tended toward the sensational, for instance, by presenting the number of people likely to die. Such facts are technically not incorrect, but, often, on reading the stories, it emerges that these figures are based on one model or one study or subject to a certain rate of spread or noncompliance. There seems to be a thinness to the news about what is surely an extraordinary, if terrible, historical event. This may be a function of the damage suffered by the profession over the last decade or so, with the evisceration of newsrooms and shrinking of investigative journalism. Or it may just be that we are in the midst of the event without perspection yet. Whatever the reason, this should drive home the need for more rigorously trained journalists in many areas, including public health and medicine. 

A final point pertains to the incoherent stream of communication from the American president and the chorus of voices, often not in tune, from assorted federal authorities. Dr. Anthony Fauci has emerged as a natural and reassuring authority, but a significant part of his job seems to be recontextualizing Donald Trump’s statements, which have ranged from xenophobic to blustering, and optimistic to grim. The absence of an official point person for crisis communication and the mixed messaging from the president and the White House has, arguably, contributed more to the panic and hoarding—after an initial period of cavalier indifference in much of the country—than have any pronouncements about the seriousness of the situation. The Center for Disease Control has guidelines for developing a crisis communication plan and strategy but these have not quite been followed over the last week.

The same pattern of miscommunication has also been seen in many other countries from the UK to India, with the confusion made worse by conflicting views expressed by doctors in one society and the World Health Organization. For the next pandemic, something along the lines of a global crisis communication protocol, apposite and required for a global crisis, will be a necessity. Implementing it will be a challenge, no doubt, conflicting as it may with national interests and directives. But given our shared vulnerability as a species it may be a necessary if not sufficient condition for dealing appropriately with the next such event.


Apr 6, 2020