Pandemic Communication and Populism

Loughborough University, UK, 12-13 June 2023

Co-hosted by the PANCOPOP research team, the Centre for Research in Communication and Culture & The Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS) Loughborough University


As the COVID-19 pandemic disappears from the headlines and attention turns to new political crises, it is more important than ever for the scholarly community to continue asking difficult questions about the way the pandemic was handled, and about things that need to change to ensure individuals and communities are better prepared for any future public health crises. This symposium, linked to an ongoing transnational research project (PANCOPOP), is designed to bring together scholars interested in the dynamics of health crisis communication and pandemic politics, with a particular focus on the impact of populist leaders and attitudes on the nature, dynamics and effectiveness of public communication processes.

Media serve as important sources of information about health, and their role increases during public health crises. We know that the way media select and present information during a crisis can have a significant impact on public attitudes and behaviour; it can encourage social cohesion and compliance with public health measures, or alternatively saw division and distrust. However, less is known about how the presence of populist leaders, parties or attitudes changes this dynamic. It is feasible to argue that the presence of populist leaders can obstruct the ability of media organisations to engage in effective health crisis communication. It is also likely that the presence of populist politics, due to its reliance on anti-elite discourse and divisive rhetoric, may encourage polarized attitudes and distrust among citizens, making them more vulnerable to misinformation spreading through socio-digital networks. But does existing evidence support these arguments? How and why do experiences vary across different countries, and across different types of populist leaders? Given the growing appeal of populism globally, we urgently need a better understanding of how populism affects health crisis communication. Such knowledge is of vital importance if we want to make our societies more resilient in the face of future pandemics.

We invite proposals for papers that examine these issues from any vantage point, in relation to any health crisis and any country, and using any methodological or theoretical approach. However, we are particularly interested in contributions that use original research to investigate topics and questions that are pursued by the PANCOPOP project team, in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic. We also welcome papers that seek to build on existing knowledge to develop practical recommendations for media practitioners and policy makers, with the aim of building more resilient media organisations that are better equipped to withstand the challenges of future pandemics in divided societies. We are open to contributions from researchers at different career stages, including PhD students, and would particularly encourage submissions that examine pandemic communication and populism in countries beyond the West. Suggested topics include, but are not limited to:

  • Health crisis communication: How was government-led pandemic crisis communication organised in different countries, which actors were involved, what kinds of themes were dominant, and how was all this affected by populism? What was the relationship between political and scientific actors? Which actors and choices pushed toward polarization and partisanship, or toward solidarity? What was the role of populist leaders in this context?
  • Media policy: How did media policies (e.g., freedom of expression and right to information, distribution of advertising) change during the pandemic, and what role did populist leaders play in these changes? What was the impact of these changes on democratic governance and pro-democratic news media functions?
  • Media coverage: What were the key traits of domestic media coverage of the pandemic, their implications for the quality of public deliberation, and links with polarization? Which actors, and what kind of themes and frames were dominant in media coverage, and did they differ from actors and themes present in government-led crisis communication? How polarized was the media coverage of the pandemic? Did populism contribute to polarization?
  • Public attitudes and news consumption: What were the key patterns of public attitudes and information-seeking behaviour before, during and after the pandemic? Who did citizens trust when it came to health matters, where did they turn to for trustworthy information, and to what extent were they exposed to unreliable health information, including misinformation associated with COVID-19? What were citizens’ attitudes to the pandemic and key preventative measures (e.g., mask wearing, social distancing, etc.) and how did they change over time?
  • Pandemic geopolitics: While populists at home have used the pandemic for advancing their agendas, on the international scene countries challenging the so-called liberal democratic order have also used the momentum to increase their influence. What was the role of China and Russia in this context, and how were their geopolitical efforts during the pandemic received by the media and public opinion in different countries? What is the relationship between media use, public attitudes to China and Russia (including vaccines), and attitudes to democracy and different policy responses to the COVID-19 pandemic?

Confirmed participants so far include:

Symposium fee: The event is free.

Format: The symposium will be held in person and streamed online. Further details will be sent to registered participants – please follow the link below to register.


For any queries please contact Brigita Valantinaviciute, PANCOPOP Project Administrator (

About the PANCOPOP project:
The PANCOPOP project develops the first comprehensive, comparative study of health crisis communication in the context of populist politics, bringing significant advances in knowledge at the intersection of political communication and public health. The focus is on four countries that were led by populist leaders during the pandemic, and which capture different types of populist responses to the pandemic: Brazil, Poland, Serbia, and the USA. The project is led by Professor Sabina Mihelj, Loughborough University, and involves a team of five Principal Investigators, six researchers and a project administrator, working across three continents.
For further information please visit the project website and follow us on Twitter @pancopop.