Spring on the York College campus


Why Do Words Matter in a Time of Crisis?
An illustration shows three speech bubbles, with the center bubble containing a target with a bullseye stylized into an exclamation point.

Jeffrey Schiffman

WVYC Radio Station Manager
and Instructor in Radio & Audio Production

"First of all, I want to be clear I’m not an accomplished writer. My experience as a writer comes from a broadcasting background. For about 25 years, I was a Radio Newscaster and Sportscaster. I had to write concisely and most of the time I had about a 2-3 minute window to convey a lot of information. Many times, I was the first source of information for listeners. One thing I learned from my first news director was to make sure you tell the story accurately without bias. She always said the listeners could tell from your voice if the news you were sharing was grave. I was about to do a newscast in 1986 when the shuttle Challenger exploded and I was on the air when the first plane slammed into the World Trade Center in 2001. Those were both crisis moments, but in going back and listening to the broadcasts I was calm and stated the facts as we knew them at the time. I’ve always been proud of my on-air demeanor in those two crisis moments because I kept it professional. "

Gabriel Cutrufello, PhD

Associate Professor of Composition and Rhetoric,
Department of Communication and Writing

"Clear and ongoing communication is always essential, but doubly so during times of crisis. When an emergency occurs, people start searching for trustworthy sources of information to help them navigate the situation. A speaker’s credibility (or what rhetoricians call ethos) becomes even more important than it usually is during these periods of uncertainty. When crises are technical in nature (like the current pandemic), presenting one’s credibility is even more difficult. Crises require that leaders, officials, and scientists frequently communicate about an ever-evolving and changing issue. Communicating in such a situation requires that speakers pay attention to their perceived credibility by helping the audience understand decision-making processes as much as they need to share the results of those processes. In that way, communicators can demonstrate openness about how they arrive at conclusions and recommendations."

Michael J. Zerbe, PhD

Professor of English,
Department of Communication and Writing

"Words matter all the time. But, they especially matter during a crisis. Words matter every time someone writes or speaks: indeed, any use of language is an ethical act. During a crisis, though, the ethics of language use intensify exponentially. What kind of language do people need in a crisis? They need language that is accurate, clear, and timely and that considers all people affected by the crisis. At this point of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people want to know, as soon as possible, when and where they can obtain the vaccine or what they can and cannot do if they’ve already received it. Some people want to know if vaccines can be trusted. Tensions run high during a crisis, and communicating ethically can be a challenge. We must all strive to meet it."