Communication is Key

Researchers at UO receive funding to study how information about COVID-19 affects people

Ellen Peters

As the world dives deeper into the unprecedented battle against COVID-19, people are becoming more inundated with information about the virus every day. In looking at this, researchers at the University of Oregon are figuring out how this information affects behavior. 

Professor Ellen Peters and other faculty received the funding to conduct research on communication during the coronavirus pandemic. The research is funded by the National Science Foundation, which can provide rapid funds in situations where the research is time-sensitive.

Peters is the Philip H. Knight Chair at UO’s School of Journalism and Communication and the Director of the Center for Science Communication Research (SCR).

 “This is nothing like we expected,” Peters says of the coronavirus. “What we are interested in doing is [this research] during a national crisis.”

Peters and the other researchers are looking into people’s emotional reactions and their behaviors over time. In studying these factors, she will observe outside influences, like the news.

The goal of the research is to better understand the psychological processes that are involved in people’s reaction to a pandemic like this. They are hoping to see a link between what people are exposed to in the media and how it affects the brain, especially because there is a lot of fear floating around right now. 

Peters says they will be sending out surveys and are already beginning to collect data. In addition to Peters, other members of the SCR help with the research include Brittany Shoots-Reinhard, Michael Silverstein and Raleigh Goodwin. Two journalism faculty members, Senyo Ofori-Parku and Scott Maier, will conduct a content analysis of the media involved in the study.

One of these behaviors we’ve seen already, Peters says, is people stocking up on food and other items in fear of the virus spreading. This can cause a chain reaction, leading to others wanting to stock up as well.

As of right now, Peters says, people are being exposed to a ton of information regarding the coronavirus. Much of this information, she says, is necessary because people need to be prepared. But a lot of what is out there scares people.

“It’s a lot of negative and scary information for people,” Peters says. “Sometimes the information can be helpful and other times it’s overwhelming.” 

So far, she’s observed that some information that is being shared between people and the media often doesn’t tell the entire story. Sometimes the numbers are not as proportionate or accurate, she says. In order to mitigate fear and assuage some of the panic, people should be aware of what types of information they are seeing and how it aligns with other numbers.  

Peters and her colleagues have already published two pieces in their early data collecting of the pandemic, one with The New York Times and the other with the National Science Foundation. She says they first were interested in who people trusted more for information.

“People are more persuaded and act on recommendations by local sources. So we ask a series of questions of who people trust or might not trust,” Peters says.

She says she found that, expectedly, who people trusted during the early outbreak aligned with political divisions. Republicans trusted President Donald Trump, whereas Democrats trusted other groups more than the president.

They also found that everybody trusted other groups, including doctors and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), more than the president. 

If people are already feeling too inundated with the amount of information regarding COVID-19, Peters recommends taking a little break from the news.

“Ask yourself if it’s helping you to prepare better,” she says. 

And if it is, she adds, think critically about the numbers being presented. If you see how many people are hospitalized from the virus, look it at as how many people don’t have to be hospitalized.

“Presenting both sides gives more context to people. Because of the way our minds work, it gives both sides of the story and helps people understand the greater context,” she says.