Bellisario College faculty identifies emotions in media messages

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Jessica Myrick was a multimedia journalist for the public radio/TV station in Bloomington, Indiana, when she gained an intense interest in how people responded to her stories. She began auditing communications courses at nearby Indiana University to get a perspective on how readers and viewers reacted to news stories. That’s when it clicked.

She was particularly fascinated by a book on media effects, which happened to be edited by Penn State Distinguished Professor Mary Beth Oliver. After highlighting nearly every sentence in the book, Myrick realized media effects — specifically media psychology — was the area she wanted to pursue. Within a year, she was enrolled at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill to work on a doctoral degree. Since achieving her doctorate, she has published studies on emotional responses to environmental messages, health information and cat videos. This summer, she joins the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications as an associate professor, and as an integral part of the recently launched Science Communication Program.

Q: You are joining the Bellisario College’s Science Communication Program, which launched this year. What do you hope to bring to the program and what do you want to see it accomplish?

Myrick: I am very excited and looking forward to meeting people and getting to work with everyone. There are great resources here and a lot of energy. It’s an exciting time to be coming to the Bellisario College.

Research-wise, I will be bringing my work on emotional responses. For a long time, science communication focused on what researchers called the “deficit theory.” It basically says that people suffer from a lack of knowledge. It says once we get that up, everything will be OK. But science communication understands that it’s not just a lack of knowledge. It is ideologies, anxieties and religious influences that shape responses to science information. I hope to contribute my understanding of different types of emotions and how they relate to cognition, motivation and behavior.

Q: What’s the biggest hurdle?

Myrick: Do you remember the scientific method from your eighth grade science class? Some of my students say it looks familiar, but forget what it’s all about. It’s the job of science communication researchers to show the public how much effort and rounds of review it takes to make science happen. For a study to get published or for a new medical breakthrough, there are many rounds and teams of scientists working all across the world. It’s a lot of disparate people having an idea basically going through a tumbler for a really long time. By the time it reaches The New York Times, a lot of work has gone into it.

Of course, it doesn’t mean it won’t change. Coffee may be good for you one day and it may kill you the next. These reports are just snapshots, not a look at the bigger picture of what comes out the bigger tumbler. We all latch onto what we already do and think. It’s hard to fit new things into our mental model. Once you put human beings into the equation, it gets hard.

Q: Health, environment and media effects are all big topics, what does your research focus on in particular?

Myrick: The concepts that I am most interested in are emotions and affect. I am trying to understand how different combinations of emotions like fearfulness and hopefulness motivate subsequent behavior. How do our responses to media about health and the environment influence our thoughts?

For example, a lot of times in environmental messaging, we see fear appeals like, “It’s the end of the world!” Sometimes we see scary messages about smoking that include the inside of a smoker’s throat ... maybe that will convince people to quit. However, when you look at studies of fear appeals, they tend to show mixed effects or show that they are often not effective. Sometimes when they are effective, they have negative secondary consequences.

A solution might be to give people something to be hopeful about. Give them things they can grasp and have confidence in. Give them things they can do. If you add in components that are not scary and show people there is a way to relieve the threat, those messages can be overall pretty persuasive.

Q: What are some practical uses of media psychology and emotional research?

Myrick: It’s really important to me that my research has downstream implications. I want to continue to build on a body of work that will hopefully become more relevant to policy debate and decisions. I recently conducted a study (published in Mass Communication and Society) with some colleagues that examined how millennials feel about Obamacare, which is super relevant now. The goal is for the results to be useful to reporters, policymakers and health advocates.

We found that, for young adults, it did not matter if the messages were politicized or not. It did not have an effect on participants, perhaps because they were immune to it after heavy coverage. The study ran in 2016. It’s a different environment now and we could learn new things running it again.

Q: In addition to the Obamacare study, what other projects are you working on?

Myrick: I’ve started doing work on the role of celebrity in our media environment, specifically when they pass along health and environmental messages versus a person’s friend or expert. Recently, I looked at celebrity scientists’ Twitter accounts. Sometimes scientists will talk about politics in a way that bridges to a science issue. It slowly builds credibility for the science related messages. I ran a content analysis of the top 15 celebrity scientists. I’ll take the 20 most popular tweets and ask people to read them and respond.

Q: What other trends are you seeing in the field of science communication?

Myrick: We are seeing a drop off in news consumption by younger audiences, but an increase in consumption of celebrity messages. It’s OK until celebrities begin sharing unhealthy activities like dangerous detox diets and tips on tanning. The challenge is reaching audiences in niche spaces with information that’s engaging and reliable. Are there different algorithms that will place important news and messages from credible groups? Advertisers have figured this out, maybe there are ways to reach people with science, healthy activities and community-related information for the public good. Younger audiences may not find and read a long New York Times article, but if a celebrity or friend shares it, they might.

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Last Updated July 19, 2017