Investigating rapid response media messages will promote health and racial equity

Stephen T. Moore

Citing the urgent need for more effective and equitable health communication, Wesleyan University researchers are collaborating with two other universities in a unique rapid response research effort led by Cornell Professor of Communication Jeff Niederdeppe and funded by a recently announced $5 million grant dollars from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF).

“At this juncture, it is critical to understand both the nature and potential of messages around policies that promote racial and health equity,” said Stephen Moore, assistant professor of management and expert on race and policy. “I am excited to be part of this fantastic team of scientists tackling these pressing and consequential issues and developing community-engaged research that can improve the experiences of people in marginalized communities.”

Moore, along with Erika Franklin Fowler and Laura Baum of the Wesleyan Media Project, are working with researchers at Cornell University and the University of Minnesota to speed up the academic research process, which can take years. Their goal is to identify emerging public health issues, address conflicting messages, and counter misinformation over several months using three interconnected research centers:

  • Wesleyan’s Media Tracking Center will monitor news coverage and political ads to quickly identify safety net issues and messages that have racial justice implications.
  • The Cornell Media Impact on Mindsats and Values ​​Hub will conduct studies and experiments to determine the messages that are most effective in promoting health and racial equity.
  • The Minnesota Center for Engagement, Dissemination and Implementation 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 examine how media sources portray race and health inequity in social safety net policies and various other issues related to health and racial equity. They will measure the impact on the public and policymakers of stories designed to promote social change. They will share findings about evidence-based communication strategies that can accelerate support for targeted investments to improve health and racial equity. Finally, they will create a model for effective research and practice partnerships so that accurate information can quickly enter the nation’s media ecosystem.

When an issue arises involving government programs—for example, early childhood education or Medicaid expansion—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. Information will be disseminated to key stakeholders, including local journalists, advocates and health organisations.

“Tracking and analyzing variation in local media messaging—in advertising and in news—has always been a strength of what we do at the Wesleyan Media Project,” said Erica Franklin Fowler. “We are proud to add more computational and applied knowledge and data analytics expertise to help develop a culture of health.”

“Not many media researchers focus on local media, but we think it’s important because local media attract large audiences and are more trusted than national news,” Niederdeppe said. “The quality of health information in local news leaves a lot to be desired, but the flip side of this is that there are opportunities to improve health content. When we think about promoting 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 together are called the Collaborative on Media and Messaging for Health and Social Policy (COMM). The collaboration will share its findings through a dedicated website, which will include media tracking reports to provide insight into issues that can be immediately acted upon. COMM will share the results of its message testing experiments, and the three centers will produce reports, blog posts, and academic journal articles.

The Cornell team is led by Niederdeppe, a professor in the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy, where he also serves as senior associate dean for faculty development. He will be joined by Cornell faculty members Jamila Michener and Neil Lewis, Jr.

In addition to Niederdeppe, Michener, and Lewis, other key COMM contributors include Co-PI Sarah Gollust and Rebekah Nagler from the University of Minnesota. Faculty, staff, students and postdoctoral fellows at each university, along with other community partners, will also be involved in the initiative.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is the nation’s largest philanthropy dedicated solely to health.

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