The Rhetoric of Public Health Reports and Press Briefings

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This blog post was originally posted on May 14, 2020.

Amid the daily reports of admissions to hospitals, of numbers intubated or in ICUs, and of the unthinkable roll call of deaths, I’ve felt almost numb with grief. And with anger, too, as I see how many are ignoring the recommendations of scientists, physicians, and healthcare workers across the nation and, indeed, the world.

As I read reports and look for the best information, I do what all of us teachers of writing and rhetoric do: I examine the statements with a rhetorical eye, looking for what makes them effective—or not. For what makes them memorable—or not. And for what they reveal about networks of power and prestige. I’ve taken a look, for instance, at recent CDC reports and guidelines, and—at the urging of TV commentator Rachel Maddow—compared the language used in them to the language of earlier reports. What even this cursory analysis reveals is that the current language has been watered down considerably: “directives” become “recommendations” become “suggestions,” for instance. “Must” becomes “should” becomes “may.” Imperatives disappear. I’ve seen enough now to realize that the CDC experts (or at least those who write their reports) have been put on a leash, their messages “massaged” to allow state and local officials more control.

But not all health officers are falling into line: daily we see one or another come forward to tell the blunt truth to the people of their town or county, even if they cry while doing so. Some are more persuasive than others, and perhaps none more so than Dr. Amy Acton, the Director of Ohio’s Department of Health. For months, she has been on the front lines, implementing early and aggressive action against the coronavirus and incurring praise along with a lot of blame. In spite of the attacks against her, Acton has been largely persuasive, and in an op-ed video piece in the New York Times last week, Sanya Dosani and Adam Westbrook carried out a brief rhetorical analysis to show why. In the 7-minute video, Dosani and Westbrook introduce Acton and then show how she uses repetition, metaphors, and personal pronouns to get her message across—and make it stick. In all, they watched seven weeks of press briefings, and identified three overall strategies that Acton relies on. The first is empowerment, which she deploys when she speaks directly to Ohioans, moving from “I” to “you” to “we,” in telling them what they are capable of doing and saying she is confident they can do it. “I’m not afraid,” she says, “I’m determined.” Her words over the weeks help listeners become determined too. In addition, Acton is brutally honest with her audience: she does not pander or try to sugar coat what is happening across the world. This honesty, and her willingness to say what she does NOT know, builds her credibility and helps connect to the viewers as well. But Acton combines that brutal honesty with vulnerability, empathizing with her audience and acknowledging, over and over, how difficult these times are and how difficult they are to face, while also acknowledging that we are all in this together.

This kind of rhetorical analysis seems like a good thing to do with students: ask them to look carefully at the press briefings of the top health official in their state and analyze how effective this person is at relaying information and inspiring confidence. Do the themes of empowerment, honesty, and vulnerability show up in these statements? How do the officials use pronouns to bring people together? How do they use metaphors to bring the message to life?

I’ve been watching the daily press briefings of our governor here in California and am beginning to recognize his go-to tropes and metaphors, his use of what I would call “corporate-speak,” and his notable use of gratitude, of thanks, of praise to every group as well as to the people of California. More on my analysis of Governor Newsom’s language to come. For now, stay safe, and practice rhetorical analysis!

Image Credit: Pixabay Image 899477 by Skratos, used under the Pixabay License

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.