Americans remain politically divided about how serious the novel coronavirus epidemic is and what steps should be taken to address it—but changing a few words in how officials describe the epidemic and response efforts could significantly improve people's willingness to take the epidemic seriously, according to a new poll.
The poll, conducted by pollster Frank Luntz and the de Beaumont Foundation, surveyed 1,100 registered voters—including an "oversample" of 300 Black Americans—between Nov. 21 and Nov. 22. The poll had an error margin of plus or minus 3%. According to a press release, the poll included a representative sample of the country's demographics, including age, education levels, income levels, and gender identity. Participants were asked to respond to questions about the phrasing needed to change their behaviors to stop the coronavirus' spread.
According to the press release, the survey highlights several shortcomings in how public health officials are communicating about the coronavirus. The poll indicates that to communicate effectively about the virus, officials need to:
- Focus on the "benefits of success," rather than solely the "consequences of failure";
- Frame certain preventive measures as scientifically settled facts rather than contested recommendations, such as mask wearing, hand washing, and social distancing;
- Rely on scientists, medical professionals, and public health officials to speak publicly on the virus, rather than politicians;
- Emphasize that taking the right steps now in terms of public health will lead to a faster economic recovery, rather than letting public health and the economy look like they are at odds; and
- Understand that vaccine hesitancy is "real," with 10% of all respondents, 13% of Republicans, and 19% of Black Americans saying they "would never take the vaccine for Covid-19."
In addition, the poll found more people may support mask-wearing than previously thought, with the poll finding that 59% of respondents chose "wearing a face mask in public" when asked what the most "sensible, responsible, and impactful" public health measure to curb the virus' spread.
The poll also found several differences in responses by political affiliation. For instance, the poll found Republicans and Democrats remain sharply divided about how serious the epidemic is, with 62% of Democrat and just 33% of Republican respondents saying the epidemic is "extremely serious." Overall, however, 74% of respondents said they felt the situation was "very" or "extremely serious."
When asked how best to respond to the epidemic, Republicans generally favored "open[ing] everything now/learn[ing] to live with the virus," while Democrats generally supported "clos[ing] down a little more since the virus has gotten worse."
In addition, Democrats were more likely than Republicans to know someone who has died of Covid-19. According to the poll, 30% of Democrats know someone who has passed away from the virus, while 18% of Republicans say the same. Thirty-four percent of Black Americans in the poll said they knew someone who had passed away from the virus.
Republicans generally take the epidemic less seriously than Democrats, partly because the language officials use to discuss safety measures comes across as invasive of their constitutional rights.
Changing the conversation
The poll also drilled down into what phrases, words, and framing approaches would help bridge the political divide among Americans in terms of how they think of and respond to the coronavirus epidemic. Specifically, the poll suggested using:
- "Stay-at-home order" rather than "lockdown," as the latter "brings to mind jailing your population," Luntz said;
- "Protocols" when discussing safety measures, as the poll suggests people respond more positively to that phrasing than terms such as "controls," "directives," "mandates," or "orders";
- "Personal responsibility" rather than "national duty," and to reference local entities rather than the federal government since many Republicans favor state rights;
- "Pandemic" rather than "coronavirus," since it humanizes the situation and because—according to the poll—respondents said they thought "pandemic" was more "significant, serious, and scary" than "Covid-19" or "coronavirus";
- Death rates rather than hospitalization rates, since the latter feels impersonal to the average individual, Luntz said, while death is a universally understood concept;
- "Face mask" rather than "facial coverings";
- An "effective" and "safe" vaccine, rather than a vaccine developed "quickly," as a focus on the speed of development undermined people's trust in the vaccine;
- "Eliminating" or "eradicating" rather than "defeating" or "crushing" the virus, because the latter terms, which are more war-like, can make the issue feel political; and
- "Fact-based" policies, since that phrasing is more effective, according to the poll, than framing policies as being based on "science," "data," or "medicine."
The poll also noted that people respond more positively to calling federal entities "public health agencies" rather than calling out the government itself, as governmental terms are frequently associated with ideas of bureaucracy and red tape instead of personal safety.
Overall, Luntz said the poll's findings demonstrated that "[e]very word and phrase is as important as the research itself, because that research is irrelevant if the public won't follow it." Noting that the "words our leaders are using … [aren't] working," Luntz added, "If we don't get this language right, people will die" (de Beaumont Foundation press release, 11/30; Fischer, Axios, 12/1; Covid Communications Cheat Sheet, 11/30).