A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to present my infodemic presentation to a standing-room only crowd. Before you think I sold out a stadium, let me stress that it was a classroom on campus but it was one of our larger classrooms! And I had people on Zoom. It was a mix of students, faculty and staff. Very exciting.
I got many questions and comments from people and even a coffee date. A colleague of mine reached out and asked about the idea of "authority." I have written about authority in this newsletter and have spoken about it on the podcast. He asked me at what point do you become an authority in an area that is not your own? For example, I am a communication professor. I also speak about health care. What authority do I have to do so? I am not a medical doctor. I am not a lab scientist. Why do I think I can do this?
I know who the experts are and I know how to take the information they need and want to share and make it palatable for the average person. I also know enough about science and health (I do have a B.S. in biology and have worked in health care for ages) to understand what is being said and what needs to be said.
Cooperation and collaboration.
I work with a colleague on campus who is ridiculously intelligent. (To be fair, I work with many colleagues who are ridiculously intelligent.) Dr. Xiao-Ning Zhang is a biochemist at our university and also a friend. I trust her. I've had her on the podcast (see episodes 2, 3 and 4) helping listeners to understand Covid but also vaccine efficacy and safety. When I was approached by another colleague and friend, Dr. Rich Lee, (he's also been on the podcast, see episode 38) about a hybrid journalism project for the Jandoli Institute that allowed communication/journalism professionals to collaborate with colleagues in other disciplines, I reached out to Xiao-Ning immediately. The idea was to work with a colleague to write a journalistic article so that they could understand how journalists work but also so we could learn about other professionals and professions.
Cooperation and collaboration.
I wanted to write about Covid. She has other ideas. Since we have both done work for our county health department - and I still do work with them - she wanted to take some of the publicly available data and share with others how it might be used. I am familiar with much of the available data but there is so much out there! Most people, I have to believe, have no idea about the available data and if they do, what to do with it. We thought it would be wonderful to share with others why the data are important, how data may be used, and what the data mean.
I consider myself an authority in interpreting and communicating data. I consider Xiao-Ning an authority in this area also but she has the additional content authority. She knows exactly what the data reference from a biologic/medical perspective. Our final article, "What data can tell us about the state of health in Cattaraugus County," delves into the data to determine what our priorities should be as a county health department. Data are driving strategy, as it should be.
What did we learn along the way? Xiao-Ning and I knew each other quite well so I wouldn't say we learned anything Earth-shattering. We both agreed that the project reinforced for us the need to make sure we have accurate information and that we communicate it in a way that others will understand. Xiao-Ning noted that she writes in a very scientific way - which would be expected. She called my writing more "bubbly." Know your audience.
The best compliment she could have given me, though, was to say that I don't assume anything. I had questions about my interpretation of some data points and asked her if my explanation was correct. If the way I worded and phrased something represented the facts. She liked that attention to detail because it mirrored her own in the way she approaches her research.
In our current climate (and I would argue in any climate), getting something wrong is deadly - literally and figuratively. How often have you herd someone say, "hey, they were wrong that one time therefore they are never right," or something like that. We all make mistakes. Do we own them and make corrections? Do we try our best to get it right at the outset? I usually hear comments like this related to the media. The media does issue corrections. Often they are because of a misspelled name or wrong title. They aren't because the bulk of a story is inaccurate. Journalists are pilloried for these errors. I also see it in health care. When a health care professional makes a mistake, there is hell to pay. One might argue that when health care professionals make mistakes it could be literally deadly. Agreed. But please remember we are all human and capable of error. Have you never made an error while doing your job? If you say you have never, you are lying. We can't be friends.
Self-awareness is key. I know what I don't know. I might say I am an authority regarding what I don't know. I do know, however, who to reach out to to get the right information. I know who I trust and I know who authority figures are. If you rattled off a list of categories or topic areas and said give me a name of someone you would contact to get information about that area, I would be ready to do that. Our collaborations and networks help to keep us honest. Working with others who are like us but who also complement us is key. I enjoy working with Xiao-Ning and others because we have much in common but we also have key differences. We bring something unique to the table that the other does not. A communication symbiosis - a lichen (if you have no idea what that means, look it up - lichen are pretty fascinating).
My colleague who raised this issue to begin with said that he was presenting information at a talk on campus and referenced an area - physics - outside of his expert subject area. Normally, I would agree with the heckler, however, my colleague then noted the people he connected with - the authorities - to get the information he was sharing. He worked in much the same way I did with Xiao-Ning. Does that give him authority? I would argue it does.
To read our article, please visit the Jandoli Institute website. While there, take a look around. It's an incredible resource.
Many holidays are upon us. I wish everyone a safe and happy holiday season whatever you celebrate or don't.