Stephanie Smith

Profile image of Stephanie Smith

Name: Stephanie Smith

Title: Associate Professor, Journalism & Mass Communication (College of Communication and Information)

What is your expertise? What are your research interests?

High-risk communication and social movements (including terrorist movements)

How long have you worked at Kent State?

8 years.

When do you first remember hearing about COVID-19 or the "coronavirus?" Did you have any sense at all that it would have as large an impact as it has on our day-to-day life? 

Early December 2019, as reports began surfacing with regularity about a deadly SARS-like respiratory pneumonia that was gaining traction in Central China. There were three interesting aspects to the December reporting: 1) the wet market theory; 2) the corona laboratory "leak" story; 3) the draconian measures (even by China's standards) that the government was taking to quarantine Wuhan -- literally, to seal it off from society. I did not anticipate the scale, depth and velocity of the spread until January, when it was apparent.

Is there any experience you have had in your life up until now that compares with what we all are currently navigating? If so, what was it?

The similarities between the COVID-19 pandemic and 9/11 are overwrought and inaccurate, except in this one aspect: There were early, clear and consistent warnings to the United States Government (White House and Department of Defense) that were ignored, denied, downplayed or suppressed. We might make a case that HIV/AIDS is similar, but that's mostly inaccurate too. You couldn't get AIDS just by going to the store, school or church.

How has your day-to-day life changed? What does your new "routine" look like now?

Three things have changed, one of them obvious: 1) I am teaching, for the first time, entirely online, which means I am working from home seven days a week. 2) Because my husband has stage IV melanoma in both lungs, every minute of the day is absorbed trying to mitigate unnecessary, invisible risks for him. 3) I am preparing to teach a course on high-risk communication (risk, warning and crisis communications) in the fall 2020 semester (CCI 40095/50095: Communicating Risk: Global Pandemics and Crises).

COVID-19 and our collective response is one of the most interdisciplinary phenomena many of us have seen/experienced. How would you describe how your discipline/research interests/expertise contributes a valuable perspective to our better understanding and responding to COVID-19? 

My focus is on high-risk communication: How we assess risk (and how we decide how much risk we will tolerate and how we actively manage risk), how we warn the public (and why so many warnings fail), and how we communicate during transnational crises (where the warning strategies, damage and mitigations are highly distributed). I study crises like pandemics, climate catastrophes, terrorism and humanitarian disasters. I examine the challenges of science and fact-based communication in real-world contexts. My focus is not on traditional crisis communication, with its conventional emphasis on the reputational equities associated with organizational crisis planning and response. Instead, I focus on high-risk communication because it requires multi-sector--not single-siloed--research, planning and response. It requires continuous environmental scanning, transnational trend analysis and risk detection. Risk, warning and crisis communication form the triad that leads to best practices in effective public communication during times of change, uncertainty, calamity, chaos and recovery.

If you had to embark upon a scholarly project (e.g., research, a new course) right now related to COVID-19 and our collective response, what would that look like?

Setting aside the considerable scholarly project of creating a new course, my experiential and scholarly interests intersect in an interesting way: risk-denial and social movements.

As I write this, protestors in several states are congregating -- against clear, specific, repeated public health warnings -- to protest state shelter-in-place directives. Are these true grassroots movements or movements fueled and fed by conservative media and pundits; what explicit and implicit language is the president using to inspire these movements; will these groups (and especially media attention to them) seriously erode society's compliance with public health measures? And what lessons will we learn about civil disobedience in the face of a very real pandemic?

And I would certainly want to focus on social movements that are rising up and will rise up to protest the health and climate injustice issues that this scourge has made clear: the deadly cost of warehousing prisoners and the elderly; the horrifying impacts on the homeless; the fiction of telling the poor and people of color that staying in toxic homes will keep them safe (frequent hand washing in Flint clearly has its own risks, as does telling the poor people of Cleveland to stay inside lead- and mold-infected home for months at a time--the same homes that have made their respiratory systems vulnerable to this virus); and the existential threat to America's indigenous people (if a generation of tribal elders continue to die, it will kill the language and culture, as we are witnessing with the Navajo Nation).

What other discipline (even without any expertise or knowledge in that area) could you see helpfully complementing yours in pursuit of your new COVID-19 project?

Public health, political science, international relations, nursing and every discipline within CCI, for starters.

Do you have any last insights/thoughts regarding COVID-19 and what we are all experiencing?

This is not my insight, but it is my worry: We may be wrong calling this a once-in-a-lifetime event and we should avoid this phrasing in public communication, media reporting and political commentary.

Consider what we are witnessing with climate crises involving weather. In 2016 Ellicott City, Maryland had a major flood that was repeatedly called a "once in a 1,000 year" event. Two years later, Ellicott City had another flood of the same magnitude. We are all in a race for a COVID-19 vaccination, as we should be, but we may be lulling the public into the belief that they will not see another pandemic. And we have not even begun a serious public conversation about the profound risks of synthetically created pandemics (like smallpox) that could be unleashed by terrorist organizations or rogue nations.