COVID-19: Critiquing News Releases: What's missing + teachable opportunities | A Pragmatist's Take | Douglas Moran | Palo Alto Online |

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By Douglas Moran

COVID-19: Critiquing News Releases: What's missing + teachable opportunities

Uploaded: Mar 19, 2020

"Updated Guidance ... Hosting ... Community Events ... : Ensure ... urge attendees to wash hands often ... If ... not available ... hand sanitizer ..." by the ^Santa Clara County Public Health Dept, 2020-03-09^. Hold it. What sort of meeting facility has enough sinks for washing "often"? And having people go into bathrooms to use the sinks may increase their risk of infection. Although hand sanitizer was already difficult to find well before this was published, it didn't offer alternatives.

Note: I am going to use the term "news releases" to refer to the broad class of communications from government agencies and similar organizations to the public. These include press releases, advisories, and guidelines.

With the closing of schools, I see an opportunity to use the COVID-19 news releases as teaching examples on a topic of interest to high school students, and possibly some in middle school. Many people say that the most improvement in their writing came from editing others' writing or from working directly with editors. By editing news releases, students could learn some Dos-and-Don'ts of how a writer can better serve the intended audience. Secondarily, this exercise can have them thinking more deeply about dealing with the ongoing pandemic. As a side-effect, this exercise may illustrate the need for close readings of such news releases.

Topic: The examination of such news releases for how useful the content is, and how effectively that information is being conveyed. Coronavirus/COVID-19 is used for examples because its current prominence results in a wide range of similar news releases for analysis and compare-and-contrast.
Off-topic: Details of COVID-19 and how the pandemic is being handled. Finger-pointing is extremely off-topic.

Expectations of the authors: I recommend focusing on major news releases from government public health agencies and similar organizations. The authors are almost certainly senior Public Relations/Communications professionals, and has likely been written or edited by the head of that agency's PR team. It was likely written with input from, and consultation with, the agency's experts. This sort of epidemic is supposed to have been a major concern of these agencies since the early 200x's, both from a bio-terror attack and from naturally occurring epidemics. The latter has provided multiple opportunities for testing and refining the agencies' response: ^SARS^ (2001-2003), ^Swine Flu^ (2009), ^MERS^ (2012-2013), and Ebola (2014-2016).

Expect to find what will likely appear to you to be major deficiencies.(foot#1)

Working with online news releases: Most of these will be PDFs. They will have been originally written using Microsoft Word, and unless the agency stripped that out of the PDF, you should be able to import that PDF into MS Word and then use the mark-up tools in MS Word. Or you can be low-tech and work on a printed-out hardcopy.

----The Forgetting Curve----

The ^Forgetting Curve^ came to public prominence in discussions of how much students forgot over summer vacation, as measured by the difference between the results on a final exam in the Spring semester and that same test given at the beginning of the Fall semester. More recently, experiments aimed at improving business presentations produced disheartening results of how little the audience retained even a short time afterward.

An Experiment: Take a non-trivial news release and read it quickly. After a decent interval -- I suggest starting with an hour -- write down what you remember. Mark those items as to importance or relevance to your needs including those that are irrelevant. Now go back to the original and highlight the items that you remembered and annotate them with your ranking. Is there any useful pattern in the formatting, wording, sequencing, ...
Aside: Research using an eye-tracker on how people scan certain categories of simple documents found the two most common patterns to be a "Z" and an "F". I have made this news release available in MS Word's .docx format at ^!AhIDfFtA7w6jhSGXk9-O6tNGlkyf?e=AgDE0r^ . It has minor differences in line-breaks.

----Intended Audience?----

Who do you think was the agency's intended audience(s) base upon how the news release was announced, circulated, entitled, ...
Now, based on your reading of the news release, what audiences do you think will find its content most useful?

An exercise: The City of Palo Alto's 2020-03-12 News Release: ^A Special Message from the Mayor regarding the Coronavirus^ (multiple updates, including re-titling). From the perspective of who you think is the intended audience -- likely people such as you -- go through this news release and use highlighter -- electronic or physical -- and mark what you think is the information that is relevant and useful for that audience and mark what is irrelevant clutter. For me, an example of clutter is the sentence "the City has been collaborating with a range of partners including, but not limited to: PAUSD, Stanford Hospital, Stanford University, neighboring cities, local businesses, and non-profits" (in the second paragraph): It reports activity not results when I am looking for results I can act on.

The purpose of this exercise is to create a visualization that you could then use to edit the news release. As needed, add more categories for additional highlighting colors. Add annotations, such as ranking what information is most important for the audience and consider whether that is reflected in the ordering and format in the news release.

----Curse of Knowledge----

The ^Curse of Knowledge^ covers a wide range of sins. Most importantly here is that the experts assume that facts and situations that they work with routinely are well-known to those new to the situation. Another is that experts assume that everyone else thinks the same as them. For example, documentation of a computer app that is impenetrable to the typical user. I am consigning some examples to the footnotes so that you can choose when to look at them, for example, to get yourself started or waiting until you want to see if they inspire additional trains of thought.(foot#2)(foot#3)(foot#4)

----Explanations and Motivations----

Read through the advice and guidelines and ask whether these are checkbox-equivalents or instructions that provide enough information for the typical member of the target audience to properly implement? Some of the footnotes for the above section "The Curse of Knowledge" contain examples of these details.

Do the advice and guidelines contain enough information for the non-typical readers to be able to adapt them to their situations?

Most advice involves a goal, the criteria to meet it, and then instructions for one or more ways to achieve that goal. However, only the last, or portion of the last, may show up in the published news release.

Omitted from many of the explanations of what to do is the reason why it is important. Absent this, people may ignore instructions that are confusing, inconvenient, or seemingly irrelevant.

Example: Many news releases are now -- and belatedly -- mentioning the long-established goal of "flatting the curve" without explanation. If you search online, most of the explanations focus on bringing down spikes that would overload medical facilities, leading to unnecessary deaths. However, the concept also applies to buying groceries, medical supplies ... While panic buying will empty shelves in stores and thereby creating the impression of shortages, there are large quantities sitting in warehouses waiting to be shipped to those stores.

----Layout and formatting----

The layout of most news releases has changed little since they were transmitted by news wires via teletypes to (hardcopy) newspapers. FAX became an alternative, but the format was little changed. Teletypes provided only a single font, with no bold, italic, underlining, ... and this legacy seems to have constrained its successors. Another legacy of these technologies is an emphasis on the length of news releases both for the cost -- dollars and time -- and for the physical space they would consume when posted on a physical bulletin board or wall.

Another legacy in news releases is the expectation that they will be read, not scanned. Now the assumption is the reverse: Multiple researchers have reported substantial decreases in concentration and focus and speculate that it is due to smartphone use.

Exercise: Free yourself from those legacies and treat the web as the primary distribution medium for the information in a selected news release that you have already analyzed. How much more effective is your web-oriented version than the original news release? Since you are the author of the former, you will be a terrible judge of this. So get some friends to read both reversions, and for each record what they remember after reading each. What of your changes were big positives? Were any negatives?
Note: Recognize that there will be effects of which was read first. If you have different people read the two different versions, the difference may be dominated by the difference between the readers rather than the versions. Sigh. The curse of not having a large number of subjects.

----Adding Links----

It's easy to say "add links", but it can be difficult and time-consuming to add good links. Much harder than my providing links in these blogs. This news release is a trusted source -- public health agency -- providing health information to the public.

What are the criteria?
(1) It has to be accurate and likely to be updated as needed by the owner of the website.
(2) The presentation of the information should meet the earlier guidelines for being useful and effective.
(3) If the information is part of a larger web page, the relevant information needs to be easily found, preferably by an ID/anchor that your link takes the reader directly to. You may be surprised by how many important web pages don't allow for links to sections. When I want to link to such pages in these blogs, I give the reader a search term that is unique within the page, or at least has the intended section as its first result.
(4) Preferably it should be on the same site as the news release. If not there, on the site of the CDC or our state health agency. This reduces the chances of conflicting terminology and advice.

Exercise: Take a news release and identify the terms and could benefit from a link. Rank order them by importance. As you try to find suitable links, record the difficulties and problems you encountered.

One goal of this exercise is to impress upon you the importance of providing direct links and not just waving it off with "They can just Google it!"

----Accessibility for non-native speakers of American English----

In the middle of my professional life, I acquired a number of foreign companies as clients and realized that I had to change my writing style. The academic writing style had been drilled into me for years and transforming it into something more accessible for non-native speakers typically added multiple passes over my drafts. Even that often missed needed changes.

You need to greatly simplify your writing so that the grammar and vocabulary aren't unnecessarily adding to the cognitive load of the reader. The rules about variability of the text, such as using synonyms rather than repeating the same word, go out the window. Similarly for colloquialisms, and cultural references.

Exercise: I hope that you have noticed some of my violations of these rules multiple times in this blog. Some were deliberate, others not. Find and fix them. This blog is available in MS Word format .docx at ^!AhIDfFtA7w6jhSBw8Bm-zudynDEK?e=D5Vv43^ . The original was written in HTML.

There are various tools out there -- I don't have recommendations -- that analyze your writing and identify places that your grammar should be simplified. And there are tools that rate the difficulty of various words. The public relations professionals that I have talked to utilize such tools.

Exercise: Take a news release and rewrite it into the academic writing style. Compare and contrast to the original.

----Can you do better?----

If you have done any of the suggested rewritings, pass it to some of your friends for comments and suggestions. Typically some will say "It's fine" and you may suspect that they didn't look at it carefully. Others will likely come back with unrealistic -- often contradictory -- suggestions. My favorite has repeatedly been "This section needs to be much shorter and much more detailed."

I hope that you will learn how to be better with your comments and suggestions on others' work after being on the receiving end.


(1) Please don't hate me.
(2) It's easy to assign exercises when there is no danger of you having to grade them.

----My other blogs on coronavirus (COVID-19)----
"Is Palo Alto prepared for a Coronavirus outbreak?", 2020-01-30.
"Coronavirus (COVID-19): Underappreciated Unknowns & inexplicable failures", 2020-02-28.
"Preparing for COVID-19: An epidemic is not a hurricane. Panic buying harmful", 2020-03-03.

1. Expect Deficiencies:
I worked on local emergency preparedness in the 1990s and the 200x's, and became painfully aware of the shortcomings of many of the existing guidelines. Too often, they seemed to have been created to be able to mark that item as completed. Attempts to provide advice for the less-than-ideal circumstances got rejected because the results don't fit nicely onto one or two sheets of paper intended to be posted on physical bulletin boards or passed out as handouts.

2. Curse of Knowledge example: Soap vs Alcohol:
Alcohol-based hand cleaners work very differently from soap, which affects how you should use them. Alcohol attacks proteins in viruses and bacteria in several ways, killing them. However, your skin also suffers some damage because its cells are vulnerable to the same attacks as bacteria (also cells). This is why those hand cleaners include ingredients to help repair and protect the skill cells.
Soap works by removing, not killing, the germs -- those germs are attached to your body by oils and similar substances that are soap's direct target. Soap, and other detergents, are molecules that have one end that binds to oilsand another end binds to water molecules. Properly applied, the soap first attaches to the oilsand when you rinse, the soap molecules attach to the passing water thereby pulling the oil off your skin. Vigorously rubbing the soap over your hands helps put the soap in contact with all the oils and helps loosen the attachment of those oils to your skin. Rinsing in running water help pull the soap molecules, and the attached oils and their attached germs, off your skin.
Notice that the standard advice to wash your hands with soap for 20 seconds misses much of this. Mildly spreading the soap over your skin has reduced effectiveness. Rinsing in a basin, or other standing water, is similarly less effective, plus it leaves the germs in the basin rather than sending them down the drain.

3. Curse of Knowledge example: Facemasks:
There is a long-standing controversy about whether facemasks are a positive or negative for uninfected people. They may catch some of the tiny droplets carrying the virus and they do keep you from touching your mouth and nose and thereby transferring germs that your hands have picked up from various surfaces. However, they may encourage you to touch the mask and your face more often. Removing protective gear so as to avoid transferring to you the germs it has protected you from. For example, in the case of the Dallas Ebola patient, two of the primary nurses became infected because of the deficiencies in their training. Have you seen warnings that this is a potential problem, much less how to properly remove your mask?

4. Curse of Knowledge example: Acetaminophen:
^Acetaminophen^ ("Tylenol")is known outside the US as "Paracetamol"(for broadening your web search).It seems to be the top recommendation for the fever and aches of the common cold and the flu. However, because Acetaminophen is included in so many over-the-counter cold medications, it is too easy to take more than the recommended maximum dose. To avoid this problem, many take ^NSAIDs (Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs)^instead.The best known NSAIDS are: aspirin, ^Ibuprofen^ ("Advil", "Motrin") and ^Naproxen^ ("Aleve"). Although NSAIDs somewhat diminish the immune system response, that is regarded as insignificant for colds and doesn't get mentioned in the medical advice. The French health minister is warning that the taking of certain medications may aggravate COVID-19. However, the reporting in the media is inconsistent with some reporting it is only Ibuprofen, other reporting NSAIDs, and still others reporting "anti-inflammatories"and listing steroidal anti-inflammatories. Playing it safe would seem to be to use Acetaminophen,(which isn't an anti-inflammatory).

An ^abbreviated index by topic and chronologically^ is available.

----Boilerplate on Commenting----
The ^Guidelines^ for comments on this blog are different from those on Town Square Forums. I am attempting to foster more civility and substantive comments by deleting violations of the guidelines.

I am particularly strict about misrepresenting what others have said (me or other commenters). If I judge your comment as likely to provoke a response of "That is not what was said", do not be surprised to have it deleted. My primary goal is to avoid unnecessary and undesirable back-and-forth, but such misrepresentations also indicate that the author is unwilling/unable to participate in a meaningful, respectful conversation on the topic.
A slur is not an argument. Neither are other forms of vilification of other participants.

If you behave like a ^Troll^, do not waste your time protesting when you get treated like one.