School researchers focusing on health communication

The Media School Report • Sept. 21, 2014
Jessica Gall Myrick
Assistant professor Jessica Gall Myrick (Photo by Maggie Richards)

By Will Healey

Research long has supported the idea that public health outcomes can be improved through communication of timely and accurate health information.

Researchers at The Media School are involved in further investigating this idea through projects showing the impact of health-related news on viewers’ and readers’ subsequent behavior. Their research looks at health messages disseminated in various forms of media, such as online, broadcast and visual communication.

“Public health is one of the most important issues facing the world,” said assistant professor Jessica Gall Myrick, whose book on the role of emotions in health communication processes is set for publication later this year. “There’s a lot of misinformation.  Research is imperative to improving health literacy.”

In the past year, journals have published her research on the effectiveness of a public service announcement about skin cancer and on public reaction to former Apple CEO Steve Jobs’ death from cancer, among others.

“Health communication is important because we can improve people’s well-being if we get it right,” Gall Myrick said.   She added that IU offers many resources for such research, including the presence of the School of Public Health, the School of Medicine and the Kinsey Institute.

Celebrities and entertainment

In the study about Steve Jobs, published in the Journal of Health Communication, Gall Myrick and her co-authors found that people’s identification with Jobs, combined with their concern about cancer, led to a significant increase in pancreatic cancer information-seeking as well as increased interpersonal communication about the disease.  

This kind of reaction was also the motivator for a paper she wrote analyzing the effectiveness of the skin cancer public service announcements. That work was published in Health Communication.

“It is really hard to get people to change their behavior, so the message has to pull at people’s heartstrings or really motivate them some other way,” Gall Myrick said. 

Rachelle Pavelko is a second-year doctoral student in journalism who started focusing on health communication as a journalism master’s student at the University of Memphis.

As she developed her idea for research about the hit show Girls and its character with obsessive-compulsive disorder, she conferred with Gall Myrick, who is her Ph.D. adviser. The two developed a survey to conduct the academic study.

“With this study, I wanted to see how this new portrayal of OCD impacted viewers, because it’s a more real portrayal of OCD than the more comic ones you see on shows like Monk, Pavelko said.

Pavelko particularly wanted to know how the audience viewed the character played by the show’s creator, Lena Dunham. Pavelko learned that Dunham drew on her own struggles with OCD to inform her portrayal of her character on the show, Hannah. In the study, Pavelko found that because Dunham and Hannah are so intertwined, people felt a strong sense of identification and empathy with both, a theory known as parasocial interaction. 

“As people felt more parasocial interaction with Lena/Hannah, they not only felt like they were friends with her, they felt greater empathy toward people with OCD, which could hopefully lead to a reduction of stereotypes,” Pavelko said.

Nicole Martins
Assistant professor Nicole Martins (Photo by Maggie Richards)

Assistant professor Nicole Martins studies the emotional and psychological impact of the media on children and adolescents. In her work, she has focused on relational aggression, which Martins calls “mean girl” behavior in both girls and boys, and how often those behaviors are portrayed in shows that children like to watch. She’s also researched how teen pregnancy is portrayed on TV reality shows like Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant, and whether such shows lead to unrealistic perceptions about pregnancy.

According to Martins, health communication is important because the media plays a direct role in how health epidemics, such as obesity, are perceived and understood.

“We’re at an age where children in the United States today have a shorter life span than their parents, and that is unprecedented, and one reason is because they are unhealthy, they’re developing type-2 diabetes earlier,” Martins said.

Martins said this is not solely because children spend too much time sitting in front of TVs, but more likely because of the advertisements they see.  

“How can we implement media literacy campaigns to make children more adept at fighting the images they see?” she said. “How can we have parents take a more active role in limiting what their children are watching, consuming and eating?”

Web communities

Martins also researches body image portrayals in the media and their effects on the self-esteem of young children and adolescents. This led to her collaboration with Ph.D. candidate Daphna Yeshua-Katz. 

Yeshua-Katz’s research looks at stigmatized communities and how they cope with stigma by joining online communities of their peers. She and Martins published a study that focused on pro-anorexia online groups, which have generated controversy because some say the blogs and websites condone or promote anorexia.

“It’s a vilified online community,” Yeshua-Katz said. “Media scholars, health professionals and parental organizations warn against it, saying the community triggers eating disorders, and they say that young girls are vulnerable to this online content.”

Yeshua-Katz talked to people within the community rather than conducting a content analysis. She interviewed 33 pro-ana bloggers, all female, to find out about their experiences and motivations. What she discovered surprised her.

“They brought a different point of view about the community,” Yeshua-Katz said.  “It’s actually a place of support. A girl who might be depressed or suicidal can find support from people who understand exactly what’s going on with her, and it’s 24 hours a day, seven days a week support.”

Yeshua-Katz’s study garnered media attention – and criticism.  Still, she continued to research the community and has a second paper under review looking at the difference in stigma between in-person anorexia support groups, which are more private, and online groups.  

Visual communication and social media

Distinguished Professor Annie Lang’s research also focuses on how people process media and how that processing affects behavior.  She received two grants from the National Institute on Drug Abuse to research how the emotional tone of anti-drug abuse messages impact whether a person will use drugs.

Lang initially wanted to take blood samples from her subjects to measure changes in dopamine levels, but obtaining approval was difficult. Instead, she developed a “motivational action measure” —  a set of pictures related to drug use — and measured people’s reactions to them.

“For heavy users of drugs, we found that there was a big positive response to the image initially, then a big negative response, and then the opposite for low users,” Lang said.  “This pattern reflects decision-making, but that initial response is biological.”

Lang also received a grant from the National Institute for Mental Health to study social network and media effects on mental illness stigma. Her collaborates are IU sociology professors Bernice Pescosolido and Jack Martin. 

“With that study, we found that people who have had negative interactions with someone suffering from mental illness in their close social network process messages aimed at mental illness differently than those who have had positive interactions,” Lang said.   

Framing the message

Associate dean of the Media School Lesa Hatley Major looks at framing health communication and public policy. A health reporter before entering academia, Major is studying ways to strengthen public support for policy changes in lung cancer, obesity and mental health. She also has researched news messages about HIV/AIDS directed toward African Americans and the topic of creating public support for AIDS interventions.

“I chose to work in the area of health communication because I wanted to conduct research that could have a direct effect on individuals in terms of decisions related to their health,” Major said.

She teamed up with Gall Myrick, whom she mentored when Gall Myrick was a journalism master’s student at IU, and doctoral candidate Stacie Jankowski on a content analysis of 18 years of TV news coverage of depression and anxiety. The study was published in the journal Electronic News. 

“We found that the news teams very rarely talked to the sufferers themselves; it was usually police, family members or doctors,” Gall Myrick said.  “Sufferers rarely had a voice.”

As Media School faculty and grad students continue to develop research and conduct studies, several say they look forward to how their work will benefit society, populations dealing daily with epidemics and health issues trending in the news.

“Health communication can impact people,” Pavelko said.  “The more knowledge the general public has, the more it can help impact people’s behavior and have lasting effects.”