Truth and Trade-offs amid a Polarized Pandemic with Dr Leana Wen
The covid pandemic has created the kind of situation in which misinformation thrives. Public health authorities met surging demand for knowledge about how to protect against covid with inconsistent or inadequate guidance. Misinformation rushed in to fill the gap.
In this episode of In Reality, Dr Leana Wen, emergency physician & public health professor at George Washington University, joins co-hosts Eric Schurenberg and Joan Donovan to discuss how health misinformation spreads and how public health institutions can regain trust.
Dr Wen explains that much of the mistrust of public health agencies during the pandemic arose because the agencies continually changed guidance. This is a normal, even desirable reaction to new research and evolving risk assessments, but many in the public regarded the shifting guidance as a sign that authorities didn’t really know the truth or had a hidden agenda.
Dr Wen distributes blame for health misinformation liberally. She explains how the major news media covering the baby formula shortage encouraged frightened parents to hoard formula, depleting stocks of the product in stores and worsening the situation. As trust in public health authorities shrinks, Dr Wen explains, people are more likely to absorb information from sources like their neighbors, rather than from qualified agencies such as pediatricians and public health organizations. This is understandable–but potentially dangerous.
To combat mistrust, Dr Wen says, public health authorities must not be afraid to give nuanced advice. Authorities should be willing to admit that they don’t always have the answers and that guidance will inevitably change as new information comes to light. It’s also essential to meet people “where they are”--meaning that authorities should default to the information platforms (including social media) that audiences consume and to local (as opposed to national) authorities that they are more likely to trust.