Social Sciences Spain , Valladolid, Tuesday, May 05 of 2015, 15:20

A study analyses the discursive strategies in the communication of sanitary crises

The doctoral thesis of the researcher of the University of Valladolid Javier Nespereira includes a case study of the influenza A pandemic of 2009

Cristina G. Pedraz/DICYT The researcher of the Department of Spanish Literature and Theory of Literature of the University of Valladolid (UVA) Javier Nespereira has carried out in recent years a study on the discursive strategies in the communication of sanitary crises, taking as an example the influenza A pandemic of 2009.

The objective of the study, which is the core of the doctoral thesis that he defended in July last year, was the confirming of the usefulness of rhetoric and the theory of reasoning as they have been reformulated and updated over the last fifty years in a critical analysis of notification of a sanitary risk, and also the providing of tools for more efficient communication.

After ten years of work experience in various fields, the veterinary medicine graduate Nespereira decided to expand his training in communication and language. He studied a second cycle of Literature Theory and Compared Literature and subsequently the Journalism Doctorate Programme of the UVA so as to start research in this field.

As he tells us, in recent decades a growing number of studies of different disciplines have researched risk narratives separately, especially those of an epidemic risk such as HIV/AIDS, SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), and avian influenza. These are supplemented by reasoning in scientific reports on emerging diseases on which scientific knowledge is still scarce or non-existent, such as the case of spongiform encephalopathy in the late 1990s. The scientific community has also tackled the processes of the construction of social confidence at a historical moment of a crisis of confidence in public institutions, whether these be political or socio-sanitary.

For this reason, the ultimate aim of Nespereira's work has been the combining of these contributions with rhetoric as the framework. On the one hand, the thesis analyses “successes and failures in the communication of the sanitary risk and of sanitary crises from the perspective of the effects of this communication on its recipients: more healthy lifestyle habits, the adoption of preventive measures, the willingness to take certain action in the event of health emergencies, etc.”.

On the other, collaboration is proposed on improving the communication of the sanitary risk. Firstly, in the event of known and non-controversial risks, by “building more efficient narratives so that the reasoning of the health institutions is coherent and persuasive, and achieves its aim for example in the adopting of healthy habits or preventive measures”.

Secondly, in the case of risks in which uncertainty or a lack of specific knowledge prevail, or in ambiguous risks that are hard to define and for which checking measures are hard to draw up, he adds that “rhetoric and reasoning provide the ideal tools for the processes of deliberative participation by the institutions, the interested parties, and the public opinion”.

“As is maintained by most current framework models for risk assessment and management, these deliberative participation processes and satisfactory communication make up the backbone of risk governance in current society”, he emphasises.

Identity discourses

In recent years emerging infectious diseases (such as ebola) and other controversial subjects such as genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have become public knowledge and uncertainty and ambiguity are rife. The social construction of these risks in the public debate, to be precise in the discourses of all agents participating in this process (scientists, politicians, and social and cultural agents as in the case of fiction), is currently the focus of the researcher's work.

“I am especially interested in the concept of the identification of the public with the discourse it receives and with who delivers it. This idea is vital if we are to understand the traditional concept of rhetoric persuasion, and in the case of the communication of sanitary risks, how confidence in scientific institutions is constructed, together with plausible narratives and arguments”, he explains.

His studies are currently taking a closer look at the communication of emergent or re-emergent infectious diseases, a field to which as he goes on to say international organisations such as the WHO or the OIE are now devoting "increased efforts”.

In particular he is analysing the ebola crisis in Spain, “the conflict between the discourse of the health authorities and their action protocols and the opinion of other scientific professionals such as the professional association of nursing or independent veterinary associations”, he concludes.