Rapid Response Media Messaging Research Will Promote Health and Racial Equity

Sarah Bjorkman | August 3, 2022
sarah gollust
Sarah Gollust

Citing the urgent need for more effective and equitable health communication, researchers at the University of Minnesota (UMN) School of Public Health (SPH) and Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication (HSJMC) are collaborating with two other universities on a unique rapid response research endeavor funded with a newly announced $5 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF).

“The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified the dire consequences of conflicting health recommendations and their politicization, alongside the propagation of misinformation,” said Jeff Niederdeppe, a professor of communication in the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy, who is leading the project.

Researchers from UMN, Cornell University, and Wesleyan University 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 that have racial equity implications.
  • Cornell’s Media Impact on Mindsets and Values Hub will conduct surveys and experiments to determine the messaging that is most effective for promoting health and racial equity.
  • UMN’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.

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 on the public and policymakers made by stories designed to advance social change, and 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.

SPH Associate Professor Sarah Gollust is the Co-PI of the grant and will be leading the Engagement, Dissemination and Implementation hub based at SPH. In addition to conducting collaborative research on communication and health equity with team members from the other universities, the UMN hub will be primarily responsible for engaging partners and advisors in the work, identifying focused opportunities to implement research results into practice through community-engaged research-practice partnerships and disseminating the research results to various audiences.

A key task in the first year will be to conduct interviews and listening sessions with stakeholders in health equity advocacy, community organizing, public health practice and journalism to identify what are the most important questions to tackle related to communication about health equity.

“I’m very excited that this new research endeavor will focus on questions that really matter to those who are doing the work to advance health equity and communicate to the public,” said Gollust. “By engaging multiple audiences from the start of the project, this helps ensure that the research studies we implement are important and that our findings are most likely to be useful in the effort to improve health communication to promote health equity.”

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 issues that are immediately actionable. COMM will share the results of its message testing experiments, and the three hubs will produce reports, blog posts and academic journal articles.

Joining Gollust on the UMN team will be Rebekah Nagler, an associate professor in the HSJMC. SPH health policy and management doctoral students Margaret Tait and Yusra Murad will also be involved in the project in the first year. Starting in the second year, the project will involve other staff, faculty and centers in SPH and HSJMC, including Assistant Professor J’Mag Karbeah and Keelia Silvis of the SPH Center for Antiracism Research for Health Equity (CARHE) as well as Assistant Professor Danielle K. Brown and the Minnesota Journalism Center in HSJMC.

Joining Niederdeppe will be Cornell faculty members Jamila Michener and Neil Lewis, Jr.

The Wesleyan team includes Steven Moore, an assistant professor of government and an expert on race and politics, along with Erika Franklin Fowler and Laura Baum of the Wesleyan Media Project.

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