Members of the DECIPHER research consortium and attendees of the 3rd Decipher workshop at the German Federal Agency of Risk Assessment (BfR) in Berlin (Foto: BfR)

Lessons from the Pandemic

Findings on COVID-Crisis Communication Presented at the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment in Berlin

Berlin, May 23, 2024 – Scientists from Technische Universität Ilmenau and the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) presented the results of the international research project DECIPHER on risk and crisis communication during the COVID-19 pandemic. The research, funded by the politically independent German Research Foundation (DFG), provides valuable insights into the communication strategies of authorities, their perception by the population, and the assessment by the news media and social media in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, the UK, and the US.

The event, held at the BfR in Berlin, focused on the conclusions for dealing with future crises. The leading scientists of the four sub-projects from TU Ilmenau and the BfR have interviewed hundreds of government officials and citizens. They analyzed more than 6000 press releases, more than 11000 news media articles, and millions of social media posts.

The interviews with government officials and analysis of press releases revealed:

  1. Internal organizational factors have a significant influence on the success of government communication in crises; especially with regard to coordination challenges between the various levels of government (national, regional, local) and with regard to the very often lacking postcrisis evaluation of communication.
  2. The analysis of pandemic-related press releases in seven countries shows that approximately 40% did not contain the necessary elements known to be effective as instructional messages to guide people in their risk assessment and self-protective behavior during a pandemic.

The analysis of approximately 11,000 articles in the news media about COVID-19 showed that:

  1. Science and scientists were evaluated much more positively as credible sources than national governments. The media in the UK, the US, and Sweden evaluated their governments most negatively compared to the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, and Spain.
  2. In countries with the highest number of COVID-related deaths per 1,000 inhabitants, there was a notable gap in the media coverage between the positive assessment of science and the negative assessment of government authorities.
  3. Journalists only rarely emphasized the effectiveness of self-protective measures. But when they did, vaccination and testing were presented as the most effective response measures compared to hygiene habits and lockdowns, for example.

Using computational methods and social media data from platforms such as X (formerly Twitter) and YouTube, the researchers analyzed government communication and public engagement during the COVID-19 pandemic. Two notable findings emerged from the study:

  1. Governments across Europe and the US communicated more about health and disease issues on X than on YouTube.
  2. Far-right and conservative political parties shared significantly more misinformation than their counterparts. For example, politicians of the AfD party alone were responsible for 92.5% of misinformation from the German Bundestag. Moreover, this misinformation generally generated higher public engagement.

Qualitative interviews with citizens in seven countries revealed:

  1. Trust plays a central role in evaluating government communication. It is associated with factors such as the perceived competence and integrity of politicians, consistency of communication, admission of mistakes, and transparency.
  2. There is a desire for uniform, coordinated communication between various state institutions. Respondents suggested the creation of a coordinated communication channel for future crises, such as an app or website that provides relevant, aligned information from the government and associated institutions. The content should be presented in easy-to-understand language and include illustrations like graphs and videos to increase comprehensibility.

"These findings highlight the critical role of trust and transparency in effective crisis communication," said Prof. Dr. Martin Löffelholz, spokesperson of the DECIPHER project at TU Ilmenau. "By understanding these dynamics, we can help improve communication strategies and media reporting in future pandemics and thus increase the protection of the population from disease and misinformation. Our ongoing data analysis will lead to more specific guidelines which we will share with the public by the end of the year.”


For more information, please contact:

Dr. Andreas Schwarz

Technische Universität Ilmenau, Institut für Medien und Kommunikationswissenschaft