The Backstory: Leaders, be honest about what you know — and don't know. Transparency builds trust.

Nicole Carroll, USA TODAY
National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci, left, accompanied by President Donald Trump, speaks about the coronavirus during a news conference in the press briefing room at the White House, Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020, in Washington.

I'm USA TODAY editor-in-chief Nicole Carroll, and this is The Backstory, insights into our biggest stories of the week. If you'd like to get The Backstory in your inbox every week, sign up here.

In a crisis, people need to be told both what is known — and what is unknown. "Because then, when the knowledge changes, it's not a surprise and it doesn't feel like it's a reversal or ... something fishy going on."

That's why we need to hear from the doctors and scientists, continues Dr. Marc Lipsitch, professor of epidemiology at Harvard University and an expert on immunology and infectious diseases. "Politicians don't like saying what they don't know."

Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, often declines to give a firm answer about timing and instead says, "We're following the data."

Dr. Anthony Fauci answered a question about schools reopening in the fall with this: "I fully expect — though I’m humble enough that I can’t accurately predict — that by the time we get to the fall that we will have this under control enough ..."

Transparency builds trust.

Lipsitch met with our editorial board Wednesday to talk about what is known — and unknown — about the coronavirus pandemic.

We don't know when it will be safe to stop physical distancing. 

"Because if we relax restrictions, as we saw in the 1918 pandemic, and as we've seen probably in China now, there's every reason to expect a resurgence of cases and we're back in the same problem. On the other hand, keeping these restrictions in place is economically disastrous. Under this scenario, we're in a dilemma, and I don't think anyone has found a good answer."

We don't know for certain that a COVID-19 infection gives you future immunity.

"We don't know that yet. We do know for other coronaviruses that there is a period of immunity that's partial but quite strong."

But here's something he does know. 

"Yeah, I think this is the Big One. The amount of social disruption is certainly unparalleled since 1918. ... I hope never to see bigger."

We also know that people are watching leadership styles. Polls show President Trump losing ground, while Fauci has broad approval in how each is handling the crisis.

Several polls out this week show Trump's numbers declining among those who think he's doing a good job, with majorities of Americans in different polls disapproving of how he's leading the response. 

Reporter Nicholas Wu wrote that how people view Trump's pandemic information breaks down along party lines: "Forty-five percent of respondents in a poll by Politico and Morning Consult said they were satisfied with the information Trump provided about the coronavirus; that percentage dropped to 16% among Democrats and soared to 79% among Republicans."

However, Wu reported, nearly 80% of both Democrats and Republicans said they were satisfied with the information from Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, known to be a straight-talker when it comes to the virus.

Transparency builds authority.

Screenshot of White House livestream with USA TODAY Politics account tweets.

Speaking of transparency, when you watch our live video of task force press conferences on usatoday.com or on our social media, you'll see added facts and context — on the same screen.

For example, when talk turned Tuesday to the availability of supplies for medical workers, we provided this balance on screen: "Hospitals have struggled to purchase equipment from suppliers. One supplier reported a delay of 3-6 months for N95 and surgical masks. Another said hospitals were competing with state and federal agencies for equipment."

When Trump praised hydroxychloroquine Wednesday, we reminded viewers: "Hydroxychloroquine can be used for malaria, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. Experts say more studies are needed on treatment for COVID."

When news was shared about hard-hit minority communities, we reported: "In Louisiana, 70% of deaths related to coronavirus were African American and 29% were white, according to the state’s health department. As of Monday, there were 14,867 cases and 512 deaths. African Americans make up 32% of the state’s population."

We’ve seen networks and cable shows limit or stop airing the briefings. We're choosing to add context, facts and background to the remarks, so you can see what our leaders are saying as well as what independent professional journalism has found to be true.

Transparency builds credibility.

The Backstory: When the news becomes too much, look around, there is help.

The Backstory:Questioning authority in times of crisis is not unpatriotic. It's critical.

Nicole Carroll is the editor-in-chief of USA TODAY. Reach her at EIC@usatoday.com or follow her on Twitter here. Thank you for supporting our journalism. You can subscribe to our print edition, ad-free experience or electronic newspaper replica here. 

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Transparency on coronavirus is critical to build trust in leadership