Media faculty receive SHIELD Illinois grant to study public attitudes of COVID-19 testing

SHIELD testing site

Three College of Media faculty have received a $25,000 research grant from SHIELD Illinois for a project that will examine public attitudes, news framing, and online engagement about SHIELD COVID-19 testing. The analyses will help inform best practices and strategies for future campaigns addressing public health crises.

SHIELD is the University of Illinois System’s statewide saliva-based COVID-19 testing program that began in Fall 2020. More than 1,700 K-12 schools, community colleges, universities, and other organizations make up the program’s client base.

MUSE research team
The MUSE research group.

The faculty members conducting the research are Ewa Maslowska, assistant professor of advertising; Margaret Ng, assistant professor of journalism; and Harsh Taneja, associate professor of new and emerging media in the Charles H. Sandage Department of Advertising. Last spring, they formed a research group called MUSE to study media users and consumers through interdisciplinary methods. The SHIELD research is the group’s first funded project.

Maslowska, Taneja, and Ng broadly research media usage: Maslowska specializes in marketing communication and consumer behavior. Taneja focuses on how and why people consume media. Ng studies how data from social media platforms can be used to explore an event or issue in a different way.

The group will investigate social media discourse, news coverage, and other data to understand how the public responded to SHIELD’s communications. Their findings will be published in academic articles, compiled into a report for the general public, and posted on an interactive online dashboard in summer 2023. SHIELD plans to use the findings to further benefit the state of Illinois.

In initial observations, Taneja said that COVID-19 is different from past public health crises because of the influence of social media.

In terms of physical transmission, “COVID -19 is perhaps similar to several other bugs in the past in how far and fast it can spread,” he said. “And then you add social media, which is available to both increase the scale and the speed of transmission of information about it.”

In a state as diverse as Illinois, geographic differences also must be considered when analyzing public perceptions of COVID-19.

“We are very mindful of the fact that attitudes towards COVID, in general, downstate, tend to be very different from attitudes towards COVID, than, let’s say, in Chicago,” Taneja added.

Even though vaccine hesitancy has existed before COVID-19, Ng said that this pandemic was the first time every citizen needed to make a personal decision about vaccination in a relatively short period of time. While social media has become the main source of information, misinformation about vaccination is also widespread. 

“With minimal restrictions on post content, misinformation easily becomes widespread on social media,” Ng said. “That’s why a study on the SHIELD health campaign will reveal the opportunities and challenges the effort encountered in the past two years.”

The last few years have given media scholars like Ng and her colleagues new research opportunities. The pandemic and other public health crises shouldn’t just be understood from a biological perspective, she argues.

“It really depends on the communication side—communication scholars have a very unique position to help make sure that society as a whole can get that benefit from vaccination,” Ng said. “And I’m very glad that we got the funding so that our media expertise can benefit the whole state at both a societal level and at an individual level.” 

—Vivian La, Communications Intern