Honesty in Public Health Communication

Dr Rebecca Brown

Dr Rebecca Brown (Principal Investigator)

Collaborators: Dr Mícheál de Barra, (Collaborator) Lecturer, Division of Psychology, Brunel University London;
Dr Stephen John, (Collaborator) Senior Lecturer, Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge

Grant: Honesty in Public Health Communication

Funder: Wake Forest University/Templeton Foundation

Duration: 12 months (commencing August 2021)

Communicating the harms and benefits of behaviours is an important public health strategy. Ensuring such communication is ‘honest’ seems, at first glance, to be ethically desirable. Yet communicators often prioritise simplicity over accuracy, confidence over uncertainty, and messages which effectively change behaviour to those that promote true beliefs. Although such strategies may successfully promote health, they do so at the cost of honesty.
The tension between informing and persuading has long existed in public health, and has recently been cast into sharp relief by the coronavirus pandemic. Understanding how to craft both ethical and effective public health communications requires consideration of the nature and value of honesty. Our project will explore the definition and role of honesty in public health. It will consider how honesty and dishonesty relate to communicative strategies such as lying, deception, manipulation and  mission, and the centrality of truthfulness to honesty. This conceptual analysis will inform normative work regarding the requirements for honesty in public health communication. Such research will further illuminate more general features of honesty, such as how it can be maintained when communicating uncertain information to large audiences, and how it can be attributed to groups and institutions, as well as guiding ethical public health communication.


Grant outputs


Are Public Health Institutions Honest? Published January 6, 2022 | By Rebecca Brown


Brown, R. and de Barra, M., (2023), 'A taxonomy of non-honesty in public health communication', Public Health Ethics, Vol: 16(1): 86-101 [PMC10161520]

Brown, R., De Barra, M. and Earp, B. D., (2022), 'Broad Medical Uncertainty and the ethical obligation for openness', Synthese, Vol: 200(121) [PMC8994926]