Coronavirus (614) Public health communication in time of crisis: Readability of On-Line COVID-19 Information

17 May, 2020

CITATION: Disaster Med Public Health Prep. 2020 May 11:1-10. doi: 10.1017/dmp.2020.151. Public health communication in time of crisis: Readability of On-Line COVID-19 Information. Basch CH1, Mohlman J2, Hillyer GC3, Garcia P1.

https://www.cambridge.org/core/services/aop-cambridge-core/content/view/...

Abstract

INTRODUCTION: The purpose of this study was to assess the readability of information on the Internet posted about COVID-19 to determine how closely these materials are written to the recommended reading levels.

METHODS: Using the search term "coronavirus," information posted on the first 100 English language websites was identified. Using an online readability calculator, multiple readability tests were conducted to assure a comprehensive representation would result.

RESULTS: The mean readability scores ranged between grade levels 6.2 and 17.8 (graduate school level). Four of the five measures (GFI, CLI, SMOG, FRE) found that readability exceeded the 10th grade reading level indicating that the text of these websites would be difficult for the average American to read. The mean reading level for nearly all non-commercial and commercial websites was at or above the 10th grade reading level.

DISCUSSION: Messages about COVID-19 must be readable at an 'easy' level, and must contain clear guidelines for behavior. The degree to which individuals seek information in response to risk messages is positively related to the expectation that the information will resolve uncertainty. However, if the information is too complex to interpret and it fails to lead to disambiguation this can contribute to feelings of panic.

Thus, anxiety fuels the quest for

disambiguating information in poorly-understood emergency situations, and when none is

found or when the message itself is difficult to comprehend, anxiety is likely to rise.11

This

cycle of anxiety-fueled information seeking, difficulty comprehending health related

information, or discovery of a lack of disambiguating information, can then fuel panic and

lead to maladaptive behaviors such as unnecessary trips to emergency rooms or overuse of

other emergency health resources.

12,13

COMMENTS (NeilPW):

1. The above URL goes to the 'accepted version of the article may differ from the final published version'.

2. The criteria for selection of websites is unclear - the authors do not appear to distinguish between 'reliable' and 'unreliable' sites, and include both non-commercial and commercial sources.

Nevertheless, they make an important point in the full text: 'anxiety fuels the quest for disambiguating information in poorly-understood emergency situations, and when none is found or when the message itself is difficult to comprehend, anxiety is likely to rise'. If reliable sources are not comprehensible, the cancer of misinformation and conspiracy theory (written in simpler, persuasive language) is more likely to disseminate.

Best wishes, Neil

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HIFA profile: Neil Pakenham-Walsh is coordinator of the HIFA global health campaign (Healthcare Information For All - www.hifa.org ), a global community with 20,000 members in 180 countries, interacting on six global forums in four languages in collaboration with WHO. Twitter: @hifa_org FB: facebook.com/HIFAdotORG neil@hifa.org