The Need For Context In The COVID-19 story.
There have been 6.3 million cases of COVID-19 in the United States and nearly 200,000 deaths. That is a staggering figure, with countless implications for individuals and communities across the country. But numbers of that size are often misused and misunderstood. That’s not to say media outlets are at fault—they are trying to accurately report on broad, systemic problems confronting the American public, all of which have potentially lasting impacts on American life. They’re trying to help their readers and viewers see the whole picture, but these efforts can end up doing more harm than good if they lack proper context and tailoring. The scale of COVID-19 does not mean we have to sacrifice nuance and specificity. For communicators, relying on just data alone, without context, would be a mistake. However, numbers are only half the story. There are certain variables that are crucial to take into account when evaluating COVID-19's impact. Observance of Safety Precautions Over the last six months, we have seen some states and counties succeed in their efforts to contain COVID-19, and we have seen others struggle, with deadly consequences. But, for all the criticisms that government officials have endured over the last six months, there is an extent to which governors, county officials, and mayors cannot directly control their citizens’ behavior. Population Differences COVID-19’s spread and lethality in a given area are related to demographic makeup. Take Florida for example. This past summer, media outlets throughout the country described Florida’s experience in apocalyptic terms. CNN published a damning piece entitled “Florida has more Covid-19 than most countries in the world,” in which it listed out the foreign countries that Florida had surpassed in case numbers, and went on to compare Florida’s death toll to “10 jumbo jets crashing.” That metaphor, while evocative, omitted crucial context. COVID-19 is dramatically more likely to be fatal to senior citizens—eight out of every 10 COVID-19 victims have been 65 or older. One in three Florida residents is over the age of 60. The state is home to an enormous number of America’s nursing and retirement homes (nearly 700 extended care nursing facilities, not to mention assisted living communities). That information is crucial to any conversation about why Florida was hit harder by this pandemic than its neighbors, like Georgia, despite comparable state government responses. Population Density COVID-19 is most often spread by people in close contact. It’s hardly any surprise then that many of the counties suffering the most from outbreaks are places where more people live. In the early days of the pandemic, New York City nearly collapsed under the weight of the virus, as hospitals and morgues filled to the brim and the city became a ghost town. But that surge in cases wasn’t the result of negligence or reckless behavior—it was a function of how little was known about how the virus spread or the full extent of its impact on our health, and the fact that New York City is one of the most densely populated places on the planet. The Takeaway: Before you develop any written materials, geo-target any ads, or draft any social content, consider your audiences and where they live. Look for data points (e.g. surveys, polls, etc.) that show how your stakeholders are behaving. Treat areas differently based on how densely populated they are—many cities have had very challenging experiences with COVID-19, so the communications they receive should reflect that reality and the challenges yet to come. After you’ve done all of this homework, you should be prepared to tailor your message and effectively reach your audience.