One Year in Happy Valley


The end of June 2018 marks one year since we packed up and moved to State College, PA to work at Penn State. It has been a great, and very busy, year meeting new colleagues, staff, and students. I’ve have really enjoyed becoming a part of the Bellisario College of Communications, the Science Communication Program, the Media Effects Research Lab, and the Media Psychology Research Group. These programs are doing so much great work researching, teaching, and informing the public about the role of communications and media in our society.

I am also particularly grateful for the wonderful interdisciplinary opportunities I have experienced in the past year. From faculty networking meetings with colleagues in the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences to meeting the folks at the Institutes of Energy and the Environment and conversations with people from multiple departments who study public health, I have learned a lot from others and can’t wait to continue connecting with more Nittany Lions.

Now that I’m settled in Happy Valley, my goal is to post more frequently about all the exciting research and outreach going on here at Penn State. Stay tuned! In the meantime, below are a few pictures from events during the 2017-2018 academic year at PSU.

Dr. Robin Nabi visits PSU

Dr. Robin Nabi had lunch with our Media Psychology Lab members before her Pockrass Lecture about media use and stress relief.

Brian Southwell presents research about misinformation

Dr. Brian Southwell talked about his research regarding health and science misinformation for our Spring 2018 Science Communication Speaker Series.

Health and Media Effects seminar students

I had a great group of graduate students for my first ever graduate seminar course. The class tackled topics related to health communication and health-related media effects.

Pancake and Gilly the pugs

Pancake and Gilly made their first trip to University Park at the end of the 2018 spring semester to bring stress relief to students and faculty during finals week.

All cat videos, all the time


Recently, an article of mine published in Computers in Human Behavior struck a chord with the popular media. The manuscript is about the psychology of watching cat videos–who watches them, why, and to what effects. I also tested a moderated-mediation model of the interplay between procrastination, feelings of both guilt and happiness, and their consequences for media enjoyment.

Hanging out with (ok, creeping behind...) Lil Bub in Bloomington, Ind.

Hanging out with (ok, creeping behind…) Lil Bub in Bloomington, Ind.

The finding that really caught the media’s attention, though, was that respondents reported feeling more positive emotions and more energy after watching cat videos. Cat video watchers also reported feeling less anxious, annoyed, guilty, sad, and depleted after watching cat videos. Basically, I gave a lot of people an excuse to stop working and pull up YouTube.

I really enjoy investigating the impact of big-news, timely media events, like celebrity health issues or Shark Week, on media consumers’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. However, I think it’s also crucial to study the daily, seemingly mundane ways in which the media shape our lives. Cat videos are an undeniable part of any Internet user’s media experience, ones that can impact our moods and how we approach subsequent tasks.

It was a great experience to talk with reporters from across the world about media effects research. But this survey was really exploratory and not meant to be the final word on cat-video-watching effects. I can’t wait to run some experiments to find out a bit more about the causal mechanisms of these potential effects on cat video viewers.

Of all the questions reporters asked me, the most common was probably “What’s your favorite cat video?” I honestly didn’t have one before this study hit the wires, although I can without a doubt say that Lil Bub is my fav celebrity cat. I probably didn’t have a favorite cat video before this because my Internet (and real life) pet of choice is definitely the humble pug dog. I’m still not 100% certain as to which cat video is the best ever, but here are a few contenders. Enjoy!

The Academic Minute: A summary of how celebrities impact our health


Recently, the good folks at WAMC Northeast Public Radio asked me if I’d contribute to their podcast series “The Academic Minute.” The link below will take you to a brief overview I put together about why and how news about celebrity health issues can motivate people to change their own health behaviors:

This very brief summary comes out of work you can find listed on the publications page. Look for more research on this topic coming soon to a media/communications conference near you! 🙂

Fear-mongering in news coverage of Ebola


On Monday, the Bloomington Herald-Times posted a guest column I wrote about the potential pitfalls of overemphasizing fear in coverage of Ebola. If you have a subscription to the H-T, you can read it here:

Below is a slightly longer version of the column:

Ebola has been at the forefront of news coverage around world for nearly six months now. Why exactly are Americans so afraid of a virus that is not airborne and that is almost entirely contained to three small countries an ocean away? As someone who studies health-related media for a living, my research interests automatically point me to media portrayals of the disease. Few of us have ever been to any country in sub-Saharan Africa, but millions of us have seen the movies Outbreak and/or Contagion, and by now we have all seen news reports of great suffering and death due to Ebola. That alone is enough to make the virus particularly frightening. The reality, though, is that we are much more likely to die from seasonal influenza, which kills anywhere from 3,000 to 49,000 Americans every single year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Health communications scholars have long studied the effects of portraying diseases as frightening on audiences. Fear, while useful for motivating humans to flea when a giant bear is approaching or fight when a weaker individual is attempting to steal one’s mate, is not necessarily the most productive feeling for helping us deal with modern health threats.

For a brief example of the reliance on fear in reporting stories about Ebola, let’s look at a recent segment on CBS This Morning. Hosted by Charlie Rose, Norah O’Donnel, and Gayle King, the show often includes health segments with CBS News Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook. On Monday, October 6, the show featured a story by LaPook with the latest updates on the spread of the Ebola virus. The doctor wanted to help alleviate public fear of the virus given the extremely low risk it presents to Americans by discussing other health threats besides Ebola. “And I would just say this: We all have worry buckets and it’s always right up to the top…” At that point, co-host O’Donnell cuts him off. “This is Rabbi LaPook, everyone!” she riffs, receiving laughs from the other co-hosts. The one medical professional in the room tries to continue his plea for a balanced approach. “This is not the time to have magical thinking. You have to believe in science. And if you are in Boston…” But again, O’Donnell interrupts. “Let me challenge you on that,” she injects, and returns the focus to how frightening the disease is.

Don’t get me wrong, I am very interested in the Ebola news and hope that the U.S. continues to be a leader in assisting the African nations that need both public health and humanitarian aid. That does not mean that news coverage should emphasize the fear aspect without also providing information on both short- and long-term solutions. The fear frame currently surrounding Ebola is also not likely the most effective way to educate audiences about the disease. Research on media effects tells us that once news audiences become afraid, they remember fewer facts reported prior to the frightening coverage. Other research indicates that many people who become scared by threatening health information deal with the fear by tuning out, even moving into denial. Those individuals then miss out any helpful information that might come later. Fear-focused coverage of disease is not just an ethical quandary for news organizations; it is also likely to have a negative impact on individual and public health.

Just as you can take steps to reduce your risk of for numerous health threats (e.g., wash your hands frequently, stay home if sick, voice support for legislation that funds health and medical initiatives), news outlets can also take control and consider adding more context to their reports on the disease. They could do so by including historical perspectives and interviews with experts. But as Dr. LaPook learned the hard way, one expert on a news program may not be enough to combat the frame of fear. In the end, it is up to consumers to become risk literate, be their own health advocates, and lobby for any changes they want to see in how our society handles health threats.