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The 3rd International E-Symposium on Communication in Health Care

"Advancing Frontiers of Health Communication Research, Education and Practice during the Pandemic"

Session 12: Viral Discourse 


Talk 1:  How to communicate science in a pandemic: A case study of the virologist and podcaster Christian Drosten

Sylvia Jaworska


In a crisis such as the current pandemic, effective science communication is key to helping citizens make sense of the unprecedented situation and guiding them through uncertainties and risks. Yet, as many examples of media communication have shown, the ‘dialogue’ between scientists and citizens has been far from successful often leading to blame (Dr Doom, Prof Lockdown), mistrust, and divisions between us (the public) and them (experts). Frustrated with the way in which media use their expertise for sensationalist purposes, some scientists took the communication into their own hands and turned to social media platforms. One example is the German virologist Christian Drosten, who rose to fame through his weekly podcast known as Coronavirus-Updates. The podcast became highly popular with more than 41 million listeners nationally and internationally and received many awards for ‘best science’ communication. It therefore presents a unique empirical opportunity to explore successful expert-scientist communication and specifically the kind of language that the scientist employs.


Using techniques from discourse analysis and corpus linguistics, this talk investigates discursive strategies used by Drosten to communicate knowledge about SARS-CoV-2 and to engage with listeners. The study interrogates a corpus of 50 podcast transcripts (293,458 words) and subsequently zooms in to a detailed qualitative analysis of a sample of 5 podcasts. Preliminary findings show that the expert engages in a complex hybrid science talk. On the one hand, science is constructed through impersonal and scientific register emphasising the rational status of scientific expertise. On the other hand (and more frequently), Drosten engages in creative explanatory practices – a kind of contingent register manifest through the use of narrative scenarios, metaphors, exemplifiers and personal stance including expression of emotions. The talk finishes with some observations regarding the affordances and constrains of digital media, specifically podcasts for effective science communication in a health crisis.

Speaker's bio:

Sylvia Jaworska is Associate Professor of Language and Professional Communication at the University of Reading (UK). She is interested in contemporary media discourses around science and health also in context of food communication and parenting, and explores those areas using linguistic methodologies including corpus linguistics, discourse and narrative analysis. She published on the topics in Applied Linguistics, Language in Society, Discourse and Society, Corpora, Journal of Pragmatics and others. She is a co-author of Language and Media (Routledge, 2020).  

Talk 2: Tribal epistemologies, intercultural contact, and COVID-19 related health behaviour

Rodney Jones

This talk discusses how people’s knowledge about health matters and their choices about health behaviours are often based not on agreed upon facts and common standards of reasoning but rather on affiliation and allegiance to the social, cultural or political ‘tribe’ they belong to. During the COVID-19 pandemic, examples of this phenomenon abound, from right wing partisans in the United States refusing to wear facemasks to people arguing about which vaccine is ‘better’ based more on nationalism than on science. Drawing on work on ‘social epistemology’ from sociology (Floridi, 2002), cognitive science (Mercier and Sperber, 2017) and science and technology studies (Latour, 1987), I argue that using health knowledge is not a simple, straightforward operation of applying ‘facts’ to behavioural decision-making. Rather, health knowledge is also an interactional resource that people use to enact social identities and engage in situated social practices with the people around them. To illustrate the social (and often ‘tribal’) nature of COVID-19 knowledge and how people use it in real life situations, I report the preliminary findings of a project examining the challenges faced by Chinese university students studying in the UK during the pandemic (conducted together with Prof Zhu Hua and Dr Sylvia Jaworska). Among the challenges these students have faced arises from inhabiting multiple ‘epistemological frames’ regarding the pandemic based on their exposure to Chinese and Western media reports as well as social media posts from both British and Chinese friends. The analysis shows how they negotiated these competing epistemologies in formulating decisions about health behaviour and in interacting both with their British friends and classmates and with friends and family members back in China.


Floridi, L. (2002). On defining library and information science as applied philosophy of information. Social Epistemology, 16, 37–49.

Latour, B., & Woolgar, S. (1986). Laboratory life: The construction of scientific facts. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Mercier, H. & Sperber, D. (2017). The enigma of reason: A new theory of human understanding. Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press.


Speaker's Bio:

Rodney Jones is Professor of Sociolinguistics at the University of Reading. He is author of Health and Risk Communication: A applied linguistic perspective (Routledge, 2013) and editor of the recently published collection Viral Discourse (Cambridge University Press, 2021). 

Talk 3:  Sense and sensibility: Urban public signs during a pandemic

Zhu Hua

Crisis impacts linguistic landscape and at the same time, linguistic landscape feeds into the sense of crisis. In this talk, I will discuss the changes in the linguistic landscape in an ordinary high street in North West London during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown. I will explore how shops responded to the crisis, how words and images communicate their authors’ sense and sensibility towards the crisis, and what we can learn from this kind of unprecedented ‘in vivo’ crisis communication.

Speaker's bio:

Zhu Hua is Chair of Educational Linguistics in School of Education, University of Birmingham and Director of MOSAIC Group for Research in Multilingualism. She is Fellow of Academy of Social Sciences, the UK. Her main research interests span across multilingual and intercultural communication and child language.

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