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Tracking Perceptions of COVID Messaging

By Jana Cunningham

DIRECTOR OF MARKETING AND COMMUNICATIONS 

Communication has been a significant challenge during the COVID-19 outbreak. The pandemic arose quickly and has stretched on for months, which has created a combination rife with opportunities for message fatigue and information inconsistency. Jakob Jensen, professor of communication at the University of Utah, and his team have been studying people’s responses and experiences with information and messages since before quarantine began
     The team’s first survey was completed in March 2020 and they continued collecting data every week through mid-September. This groundbreaking dataset provided researchers with a unique avenue for exploring the complexity of pandemic communication. Jensen’s data advances theory and research by evaluating responses to a pandemic as it occurs in real time.
     “By asking questions about messages received from news, social media, at the workplace, schools, and businesses, we can track and evaluate how effective or ineffective these messages about COVID are and how people’s responses shift over time,” said Jensen. “This helps researchers identify pathways that assist with ongoing efforts to combat this pandemic and advance understanding for health crises to come.
     Across six months, Jensen’s team tracked four unintended effects of communication—message fatigue, information overload, perceived repetition, and perceived exaggeration—to understand how they manifest and evolve over the course of a pandemic. For example, past research has indicated that people experience increased exhaustion and boredom as they continue to see and hear redundant messages. This negative and unintended communication outcome of message fatigue can occur among populations that receive messages repetitively and can have adverse consequences over time (e.g., paying less attention to messages in the future and 

increasing one’s desire to argue against a message’s content).
    “All four message perceptions were high in mid-March, and then they began to fade as we moved into April. Dr. Fauci’s press conferences seemed to have a positive impact on messaging, with a notably decline in perceived exaggeration after he took a more active role,” said Jensen.
     Jensen’s data suggests that having a strong voice from the CDC may be key to managing public response to pandemics, but his research also revealed problems. Over time, public health communicators struggled with inconsistent messaging. From masks to the persistence of COVID on surfaces, messages seemed to shift or change.
     “A key lesson is that messaging may have been too certain and dichotomized. We need strong message leadership, but also a willingness to acknowledge uncertainty,” said Jensen.
     Jensen was awarded a grant for his work in April 2020 as part of a COVID research initiative supported by the Office of the Vice President for Research in partnership with the Immunology, Inflammation, and Infectious Disease Initiative at the U. The initiative awarded $1.3 million in seed grants to 56 cross-campus projects to examine a host of issues arising out of the pandemic.
     “We were very fortunate to get in the field quickly, and then receive continuation support from the university seed grant. The grant completely funded data collection from weekly survey for 18 straight weeks,” said Jensen.
     Jensen has taken his research into the classroom and currently teaches an online course that explores the unique communication challenges and opportunities presented by the crisis in a changing environment. Students study the communication strategy of public health organizations —including the WHO, CDC, and state departments of health—and examine how commercial brands have responded to COVID.

Communication has been a significant challenge during the COVID-19 outbreak. The pandemic arose quickly and has stretched on for months, which has created a combination rife with opportunities for message fatigue and information inconsistency. Jakob Jensen, professor of communication at the University of Utah, and his team have been studying people’s responses and experiences with information and messages since before quarantine began
     The team’s first survey was completed in March 2020 and they continued collecting data every week through mid-September. This groundbreaking dataset provided researchers with a unique avenue for exploring the complexity of pandemic communication. Jensen’s data advances theory and research by evaluating responses to a pandemic as it occurs in real time.
     “By asking questions about messages received from news, social media, at the workplace, schools, and businesses, we can track and evaluate how effective or ineffective these messages about COVID are and how people’s responses shift over time,” said Jensen. “This helps researchers identify pathways that assist with ongoing efforts to combat this pandemic and advance understanding for health crises to come.
     Across six months, Jensen’s team tracked four unintended effects of communication—message fatigue, information overload, perceived repetition, and perceived exaggeration—to understand how they manifest and evolve over the course of a pandemic. For example, past research has indicated that people experience increased exhaustion and boredom as they continue to see and hear redundant messages. This negative and unintended communication outcome of message fatigue can occur among populations that receive messages repetitively and can have adverse consequences over time (e.g., paying less attention to messages in the future and increasing one’s desire to argue against a message’s content).
    “All four message perceptions were high in mid-March, and then they began to fade as we moved into April. Dr. Fauci’s press conferences seemed to have a positive impact on messaging, with a notably decline in perceived exaggeration after he took a more active role,” said Jensen.
     Jensen’s data suggests that having a strong voice from the CDC may be key to managing public response to pandemics, but his research also revealed problems. Over time, public health communicators struggled with inconsistent messaging. From masks to the persistence of COVID on surfaces, messages seemed to shift or change.
     “A key lesson is that messaging may have been too certain and dichotomized. We need strong message leadership, but also a willingness to acknowledge uncertainty,” said Jensen.
     Jensen was awarded a grant for his work in April 2020 as part of a COVID research initiative supported by the Office of the Vice President for Research in partnership with the Immunology, Inflammation, and Infectious Disease Initiative at the U. The initiative awarded $1.3 million in seed grants to 56 cross-campus projects to examine a host of issues arising out of the pandemic.
     “We were very fortunate to get in the field quickly, and then receive continuation support from the university seed grant. The grant completely funded data collection from weekly survey for 18 straight weeks,” said Jensen.
     Jensen has taken his research into the classroom and currently teaches an online course that explores the unique communication challenges and opportunities presented by the crisis in a changing environment. Students study the communication strategy of public health organizations —including the WHO, CDC, and state departments of health—and examine how commercial brands have responded to COVID.

Last Updated: 10/21/20