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York College lecture will examine why words matter in a time of crisis

A York College student in a bright red shirt posing in front to Northside Commons

The April 1, 2021, Spartan Speaks lecture will tackle the topic of communication in a crisis, and how everyday language can help share even complex information.

The power of social media, the internet, and the 24-hour news cycle have made information more accessible than ever before. It’s also overwhelming. There could be dozens of decisions people have to make a day based on all the details that are thrown at them. The most recent case of information overload in a crisis: The COVID-19 pandemic.

“How do you communicate public health policy when you’re in a situation where the science is evolving?” says Gabe Cutrufello, Chair of the Communications and Writing Department at York College of Pennsylvania. “It makes how we communicate even more important.”

In most cases, the general public is a consumer of published scientific information. People see the reports and tune in to the news when the studies are complete, when a new medication has already gone through rigorous testing, and when medical professionals have been briefed on all the nuances of a topic.

With COVID-19, the general public got to see the research process in action. It sparked confusion, disputes, and misunderstandings about policies and procedures. “If you work in research, you understand that things are changing on a constant basis,” Cutrufello says. “If you’re an outsider, it seems as if nobody knows what they’re doing.”

Challenges of crisis communication

COVID-19 has meant people have to make real-time health decisions while going to the grocery store: Are you wearing a mask? What kind? How many layers? Is it secure enough? How close are you to the next person?

“That’s not a way we generally operate,” Cutrufello says. “Getting people to think about these things and to do so in a short amount of time is incredibly challenging.”

It’s similar in other fields, too. Take recycling, for example. For someone to commit to recycling a single item, they would have to know what number is printed on the bottom and if their municipality accepts items with that number. If not, can they compost it? Can it be reused in another way? If they toss it in the trash, what long-term repercussions is that going to have on the environment?

“We make a lot of decisions based on technical material that’s been communicated to us,” he says. “But we don’t often have the mental capacity to process it all in the way it’s delivered to us.”

The Department of Communication and Writing encompasses three majors, Mass Communication, Professional Writing, and Technical Communication and Writing. Within these majors, students and faculty are looking at these big moments in communications history as examples of constantly having to communicate in incredibly important moments. 

“Very few people are trained to receive raw data and process it,” Cutrufello says. “That’s why students have to learn how good website design, well-crafted narratives, and packaged data help us process things. We have to make it consumable and useful.”

Working through crisis

Jalil Dixon ’23 saw a local organization have to work through the ever-changing rules of COVID-19. As a Professional Writing major, Dixon worked with The Grotto, a nonprofit, co-working space in downtown York, as it transitioned from in-person seminars to Zoom lectures, and go from shared working spaces to setting up dividers between desks.

As a Resident Assistant on campus, Dixon also communicates with students as safety protocols change. “I see communication as a tool that can really impact how people respond to situations,” he says. “COVID-19 has presented its challenges, but it’s also given me the experience to practice these things.”

Join Spartan Speaks

York College will host the Spartan Speaks lecture, Words Matter: How to Communicate Clearly in a Time of Crisis via Zoom. Tune in on Thursday, April 1, 2021 at 6:30 p.m.

For more information on the Spartan Speaks series and to register, please visit our website at https://admissions.ycp.edu/register/Spartan-Speaks-Apr1