Dec 1, 2020 - Politics & Policy

The words that actually persuade people on the pandemic

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

A new study finds certain vocabulary is more effective at getting the public to take the COVID-19 pandemic seriously.

Why it matters: Much of the language being used by the government, business leaders and the media to discuss the virus politicizes the issue, even if done inadvertently. This is causing large swaths of the population to tune out of information about the pandemic, veteran GOP pollster Frank Luntz told Axios.

This is particularly true for Republicans, according to a new study that Luntz conducted in conjunction with the de Beaumont Foundation.

  • The polling suggests Republicans tend to take the coronavirus less seriously, in part because the vocabulary used to describe safety measures feels invasive of their constitutional rights.
  • It also finds that the language used to talk about the virus is often too impersonal to be effective.

A few simple wording changes can help improve the public's perception.

  • Lockdowns: Survey respondents had a much more positive reaction to the term "stay-at-home order." "Calling it a lockdown brings to mind jailing your population," Luntz said.
  • Safety measures: The data shows that Americans have a more positive reaction when rules and regulations to address COVID-19 are called "protocols" as opposed to "mandates," "directives," "controls," or "orders."
  • Responsibility: The research finds it's better to use the term "personal responsibility" rather than a "national duty." References to the federal government should be replaced with more localized solutions, especially as many Republicans support stronger state rights.
  • Naming the virus: Leaders should use the word "pandemic" instead of "coronavirus," because it helps humanize and personalize the situation. Overall, Americans consider a "pandemic" more "significant, serious, and scary" than "COVID-19" or "coronavirus."
  • Numbers: Health experts often refer to hospitalization rates, but this feels distant and impersonal to the average person, Luntz said. Instead, they should focus mostly on talking about deaths, since that's universally understood.
  • Getting rid of the virus: Saying "eliminating" or "eradicating" the virus is more impactful than using "defeating" or "crushing" the virus, because war-like language can politicize the issue.
  • Vaccines: Emphasis on the speed of vaccine development turns the public off, Luntz said. People are looking for something safe, assured and effective, and the administration's framing around "Operation Warp Speed" to get a vaccine out quickly undermines the public's trust that the vaccine is safe, he notes.
  • Agencies: Research shows people respond better to calling federal bodies "public health agencies" rather than referring to the government itself, because government often elicits feelings of bureaucracy and red tape, not personal safety.
  • Defining policies: Saying that policies to combat the pandemic are "fact-based" is more effective than saying they're based on "science," "data," or "medicine."

Yes, but: These suggestions may fall on deaf ears, as not all officials, newsrooms and business leaders are incentivized to think about public safety over personal objectives.

  • Some newsrooms, for example, may get more traffic from search results when they use the word "coronavirus" in headlines rather than "pandemic.'
  • President Trump often uses the term "China virus" in an effort to emphasize where the virus was first detected.

"Media in some cases tends to pick sides," said Brian Castrucci, CEO of the de Beaumont Foundation, which published the study with Luntz.

  • Castrucci notes that much of the pandemic coverage has forced consumers to think that solutions are binary: Either more people suffer from the virus itself or the economic impact of precautionary measures.

Bottom line: "Every word and phrase is as important as the research itself, because that research is irrelevant if the public won't follow it," Luntz said.

  • "If we don't get this language right, people will die."

Go deeper: "Axios on HBO" interviews pollster Frank Luntz

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