Media serve as important sources of information about health, and their role increases during public health crises. 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. The presence of populist leaders obstructs the capacity of media organisations to engage in effective health crisis communication. It fosters anti-elite sentiments, contributes to divisive media coverage, and thereby encourages polarized attitudes and distrust among citizens, making them more vulnerable to misinformation spreading through socio-digital networks. Given the growing appeal of populism globally, activities aimed at making our societies more resilient in the face of future pandemics urgently need a better understanding of how populism affects health crisis communication.

PANCOPOP will develop a 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. Research will examine the impact of populism on four aspects of the pandemic communication circuit during COVID-19: government- led health crisis communication, media policy, media coverage, and public attitudes. The fifth strand will take a transnational perspective and analyse how the interaction between populism and pandemic communication was shaped by China and Russia’s pandemic geopolitics. The focus will be on four countries that were led by populist leaders during the pandemic, and capture different types of populist responses to the pandemic: Brazil, Poland, Serbia, and the USA.

This research will inform recommendations aimed at building more resilient media organisations that are better equipped to withstand the challenges of future pandemics in divided societies. The recommendations will be developed and disseminated in collaboration with key organisations representing media regulators, communication professionals, and public service media.

The video below was created to summarise some the key findings and recommendations the PANCOPOP project has been able to develop so far.