Coronavirus Discourses: linguistic evidence for effective public health messaging

Understanding the reception of public health messages is of key importance to the UK’s ability to manage the next phase of the coronavirus pandemic.

Human behaviour is shaped by the reception and production of discourse and by the reasoning about difference sources of information. This project addresses key challenges that the coronavirus pandemic presents in relation to understanding the flow and impact of public health messages in public and private communications.

The project will focus on two particular challenges highlighted by our collaborators (Public Health England, Public Health Wales and NHS Education for Scotland): messaging around geographical borders and messaging related to BAME populations. Moving beyond corpus linguistic approaches, we will investigate the complex relationship between how individual public health messages are perceived, interpreted and re-produced by members of the public.

Our multidisciplinary team includes linguists, computer scientists and experts in human factors. We will analyse online newspaper texts that include public health messages alongside comments by readers; government briefings and subsequent questions by the press; as well as the online news consumption of individuals and subsequent electronic discourses generated by those individuals in relation to specific public health messages. We will develop the relevant technology to track the trajectories of public health messages once they are released to the public, whilst preserving the privacy of participants and contributors. Key outputs from the project will include the code for the privacy preserving tool and a catalogue of specific public health messages and their associated trajectories over time, alongside accompanying guidance to optimise the effectiveness of future messaging campaigns.

The project Coronavirus Discourses: linguistic evidence for effective public health messaging is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC/UKRI), grant reference AH/V015125/1, and runs from January 2021 to July 2022. It is led by the University of Nottingham in collaboration with Cardiff University, and working in partnership with Public Health England, Public Health Wales and NHS Education for Scotland.