Not long ago I was watching a daily presidential press briefing when a reporter asked a question that caught my attention. It concerned a change in direction when it came to advice about the wearing of masks to protect against the coronavirus.
Early in the pandemic, we were told that masks did not provide the public with much protection. In addition, we learned that medical masks, which were scarce, should be preserved for health workers on the front lines. Just when we were getting used to those instructions, new ones emerged. How might we make sense of that now? Masks or no masks?
The president stepped aside to make way for Jerome Adams, surgeon general of the United States. No response, especially a spoken one, to any question is perfect, but his seemed to possess a level of “civic clarity” that might be studied and emulated.
That term, civic clarity, refers to the primary responsibility of journalists and other public writers and speakers: to take responsibility for what readers or listeners know and understand. I’ve written about that here.
Because we all speak in fragments and run-on sentences, which we don’t often recognize in the act of listening, I have revised this text with a light hand so that spoken pauses are marked with appropriate punctuation. My comments are in italics. I summarize my findings at the end.
Jerome Adams, U.S. Surgeon General:
Thank you. Mr. President, Mr. Vice President, Mr. Secretary, and (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) Director (Robert) Redfield. I especially want to thank the folks at the CDC, and it’s a great question that you ask. It’s a fair question that you ask. I want to unpack the evolution of our guidance on masks because it has been confusing to the American people.
The doctor’s response is diplomatic and decorous. In an environment where the president attacks news as “fake” and reporters as “a disgrace,” Adams thanks members of the administration and the government’s scientists. He characterizes the question as “great” and “fair.” In other words, he creates a relationship of earnest speaking and well-intentioned listening.
He begins to achieve civic clarity when he announces that he is going to explain a process, with the admission that the policy on masks has been confusing. In essence, he is saying “this has been confusing, but it is my job to make it less confusing.”
First of all, I want people to understand that the CDC, the World Health Organization, my office, and most public health and health organizations and professionals originally recommended against the general public wearing masks. Based on the best evidence available at the time, it was not deemed that that would have a significant impact on whether or not a healthy person wearing a mask would contract COVID-19. We have always recommended that symptomatic people wear a mask because if you’re coughing, if you have a fever, if you’re symptomatic, you could transmit the disease to other people.
This may seem elementary, but for me the phrase “first of all” is so helpful. It signifies that the speaker will be taking a step by step approach.
What follows is a broad list of experts, cited by reference to the organizations they belong to. A speaker is always looking for authority. The higher the stakes, the more authority matters because it lends credibility.
“Based on the best evidence at the time” again reveals the process. It also reveals a simple but important idea: The new evidence can lead to new opinions and new policies.
The speaker mostly avoids jargon which is helpful. Even when he uses the word “symptomatic,” he defines it to include coughing and fever. He ends with the clearest declaration: “you could transmit the disease to other people.”
What has changed in our recommendation? Well, it’s important to know that we now know from recent studies that a significant portion of individuals with coronavirus lack symptoms. They’re what we call asymptomatic, and that even those who eventually become pre-symptomatic, meaning that they will develop symptoms in the future, can transmit the virus to others before they show symptoms. This means that the virus can spread between people interacting in close proximity, for example, coughing, speaking or sneezing, even if those people were not exhibiting symptoms.
The doctor begins this passage with a question. That works because we expect an answer, which he will deliver.
The word symptom — in several forms — is key here. Most people, I think, know what a symptom of an illness is, so that need not be defined, although it could be. More technical are the terms asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic, and the doctor explains those smoothly without making us feel ignorant. In explanations, examples are like little flashlights.
In light of this new evidence, CDC recommends and the task force recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain. These include places like grocery stores and pharmacies. We especially recommend this in areas of significant community-based transmission.
By this paragraph, the doctor has established an easy pace for the listeners to follow his logic. A slower pace is best for making things clear. And the best way to establish a slower pace is to shorten the length of sentences. Each period is a stop sign. The first sentence is longer, but followed by an eight-word sentence and then one of ten words.
“Community-based transmission” is a technical phrase that might have been paraphrased here, maybe: “We especially recommend this in areas where the disease is spreading from person to person within a particular community and not from the outside.” But that may be unnecessary.
It is critical, and the president mentioned this, the vice president mentioned this. It’s critical to emphasize that maintaining six feet of social distancing remains key to slowing the spread of the virus. But CDC is additionally advising the use of simple cloth coverings to slow the spread of the virus and to help people who may have the virus — and do not know it — from transmitting it to others.
As medical professionals have guided the public, a key strategy is repetition. Simple phrases like “wash your hands,” “keep six feet of distance,” and “try not to touch your face” have become mantras of wellness. So even though the doctor is focusing on masks, he adds the context in which social distancing remains critical.
The cloth face coverings recommended are not surgical master N95 respirators. Those are critical supplies that must continue to be reserved for healthcare workers and other medical first responders as recommended by the current CDC guidance. As the president also mentioned, cloth face covering fashioned from household items are made at home from common materials at low cost can be used as an additional voluntary public health measure. This recommendation complements and does not replace the president’s coronavirus guidelines for America 30 days to slow the spread, which remains the cornerstone of our national effort to slow the spread of the virus.
One of the best ways to make things clear is to draw sharp distinctions. The doctor is recommending homemade cloth coverings of the face, and not the more protective medical masks worn by those who are on the front lines of medical care.
CDC is always, always looking at the data. We’ve told you that from the beginning. Dr. (Deborah) Birx said that at every single press conference, we’re looking at the data, we’re evolving our recommendations, and new recommendations will come as the evidence dictates.
This is a smart passage. It has an instructional purpose. It says, essentially, that we make recommendations upon what we know now. But we will never stop learning more. When we learn more, our recommendations may change again.
I want to say, if you do choose to wear a face mask, very important, wash your hands first because you don’t want to put on a face covering with a dirty hand. Do not touch your face while you are wearing the face covering because again, you could take materials from the surface, germs from the surface, and bring it to your face. If you choose to wear a face covering, please, please leave the N95 masks, the medical supplies, for the medical professionals, healthcare workers and frontline workers. Know that this is not a substitute for social distancing.
He is about to wrap things up, but not before repeating key elements. But the doctor also teaches us something we might have taken for granted: how to put on the mask.
Remember, this is all about me protecting you and you protecting me. This is about us coming together as communities and if people voluntarily choose to wear a face covering, they’re wearing it to protect their neighbors from getting the coronavirus because again, they could have asymptomatic spread. Mr. President, thank you very much for that. Appreciate the opportunity to come.
The pronouns we choose establish the voice of the writer and speaker, and also the relationship between the speaker and the audience. The use of “you” creates the illusion of a conversation, a give and take. “Me” makes it personal. It allows someone who is both an expert and government official to look at the audience right in the eye, and not down from above.
In summary, what can we learn from the Surgeon General about achieving civic clarity?
- Be friendly, not antagonistic.
- If there is an honest question, honor it.
- Admit public confusion and your attempts to clear things up.
- Minimize the use of technical language — or define it.
- Recognize a change of recommendations based on new learning.
- Use real life examples, not just “symptoms” but coughing, sneezing, and fever.
- Don’t assume that because you have said things once, the public will understand. Repeat the most important information — with variation.
- Draw distinctions — say, between homemade masks and the kinds professionals wear — to help readers make responsible decisions.
- Tune your voice with “you” to create a sense of interaction; and with “I” and “me” to create sense that you are one of “us.”
- Keep the pace steady. Slow it down to make the most important points.
Bonus: Be nice. Be respectful. Maybe someone will listen to you — and understand.
Want to share these lessons with others?
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Roy Peter Clark teaches writing at Poynter. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @RoyPeterClark.