Citing the urgent need for more effective and equitable health communication, three universities are collaborating on a unique research endeavor that will quickly identify developing public health issues, address conflicting messages and counter misinformation, funded with a newly announced $5 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified the dire consequences of conflicting health recommendations and their politicization, alongside the propagation of misinformation,” said Jeff Niederdeppe, professor of communication in the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy, who is leading the project.
“The specific sources of conflict and misinformation have been unpredictable and unrelenting, highlighting the need for our vision to be nimble and rapidly responsive to issues as they emerge in real time,” said Niederdeppe, also senior associate dean of faculty development in the Cornell Brooks School, professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and co-director of the Cornell Center for Health Equity (CCHEq). “Our goal is to develop community-engaged research on the content and effects of media messaging, and use that research to develop strategies to promote health and racial equity.”
Researchers from Cornell, Wesleyan University and the University of Minnesota plan to speed up an academic research process that can take years to a matter of months using three interlocking research hubs:
- Wesleyan’s Media Tracking Hub will monitor news coverage and political commercials to quickly identify developing social safety net issues and messaging with racial equity implications.
- Cornell’s Media Impact on Mindsets and Values Hub will conduct surveys and experiments to determine the most-effective messaging for promoting health and racial equity.
- Minnesota’s Engagement, Dissemination and Implementation Hub will work with journalists as well as public health officials, affected communities and advocacy organizations to put the research findings into practice.
As a team, the researchers will investigate how media sources portray racial and health inequality in social safety net policies and a variety of other health and racial equity-related issues. They will measure the impact of stories designed to advance social change on the public and policymakers. They will share findings on evidence-based communication strategies that can accelerate support for targeted investments for improving health and racial equity. Finally, they will establish a model for effective research-practice partnerships so that accurate information can rapidly enter the nation’s media ecosystem.
Niederdeppe described how that process will work in practice: When an issue develops concerning government programs – for example, early childhood education or Medicaid expansion – the researchers will quickly identify what they call “windows of opportunity” in the public debate. When the window opens, journalists and advocates will be provided with timely, accurate and empirically informed information to share through their stories and channels. The information will be disseminated to key stakeholders, including local journalists, advocates and health organizations.
“Not many media researchers focus on local media, but we think it’s important because local media attracts large audiences and is more trusted that national news,” Niederdeppe said. “The quality of the health information on local news leaves much to be desired, but the flip side of that means there are opportunities to strengthen the health content. When we think about advancing health equity and a culture of health, local media can have a local impact on policy discussions.”
This project is unprecedented in its goals, scope and integration of teams from the three universities, which collectively call themselves the Collaborative on Media and Messaging for Health and Social Policy (COMM). The collaborative will share its findings through a dedicated website that will include media tracking reports to provide insight on immediately actionable issues. COMM will share the results of its message testing experiments, and the three hubs will produce reports, blog posts and academic journal articles.
Joining Niederdeppe on the project will be Jamila Michener and Neil Lewis, Jr. ’13. Michener is an associate professor of government in the College of Arts and Sciences and a Brooks professor as well as senior associate dean of public engagement and co-director of CCHEq. Lewis is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication in CALS and co-director of the Action Research Collaborative. He also has a secondary appointment as assistant professor in the Division of General Internal Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine.
Other key contributors to COMM include Co-PI Sarah Gollust and Rebekah Nagler of the University of Minnesota and Erika Franklin Fowler, Laura Baum and Steven Moore of Wesleyan. Faculty, staff, students and postdoctoral fellows at each university, along with other community-based partners, will also be involved in the initiative.
Jim Hanchett is assistant dean of communications at the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy.