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SLU Communication Professor Studying Credibility of COVID-19 Information, Impact on Health Behaviors

Since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus in the United States, staying up to date with reliable information has become an essential part of many Americans’ daily routine. A Saint Louis University researcher is now analyzing how people are getting their information during the pandemic.

Jennifer Ohs

Jennifer Ohs, Ph.D., associate professor of communication. Photo by Steve Long. 

Jennifer Ohs, Ph.D., associate professor of communication, has launched a new study, “Health Misinformation, Media Exposure, Uncertainty, and Anxiety during the COVID-19 Pandemic,” to analyze trends in news and information consumption.

Ohs, in collaboration with Amber Hinsley, Ph.D, Texas State University; Ilwoo Ju, Ph.D., Purdue University; and Taehwan Park, Ph.D., St. John’s University; will examine how Americans seek out and absorb health-related information and what factors might influence their search.

“Our study examines how people weigh the credibility of COVID-19 related information and sources, and how those judgments affect their decisions about health behaviors to protect against contracting the disease,” Ohs said. “The knowledge gained from this work may be used by public health officials and other emergency managers to design more effective messages in the fight against COVID-19.”

The study will analyze participants’ anxiety about COVID-19 information alongside their perceived susceptibility to the virus and the potential severity of illness. Researchers will examine how these factors may change the ways in which participants search for and verify information.

“We would expect, for example, that older adults may be more likely than younger adults to have an increased trust in a physician and seek information from medical professionals about the pandemic,” Ohs said. In contrast, she said, younger adults may be seeking pandemic-related information from mediated sources, family members, and friends.

Ohs brings extensive expertise in interpersonal and health communication to the study, focusing on the influence of interpersonal social networks and age on information-seeking and preventative behaviors.

The team was able to start their research by recruiting study subjects through the SLU Research Institute’s Rapid Response COVID-19 Seed Fund. Subjects were  surveyed in order to investigate psychological and behavioral aspects of protective health decisions in the context of COVID-19.

The researchers plan to expand the findings of this study with future opportunities to apply for extramural funding.

Ohs and Hinsley will examine users’ perceived credibility of COVID-19 information on social media, while Ju and Park will study the influence of mass mediated sources on decisions to engage in protective behaviors during COVID-19 and the role of optimistic bias in practicing preventive health behaviors during the pandemic.

“Making health decisions based on the benefits to our collective society has been a central feature of public health messages about COVID-19,” Ohs said. “This study examines the extent to which such messaging helps to motivate the public in their health decisions and behaviors.”

This is a part of a series of stories from the Office of the Vice President for Research highlighting SLU’s Rapid Response COVID-19 Seed Fund Program. MaryCait Dolan/Office of the Vice President for Research.