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Communicating outside the ivory tower

I recently found out that my co-authored piece on COVID-19 memes and stress, published with my great friends Robin Nabi and Nicholas Eng in the journal Psychology of Popular Media, received more non-scholarly attention than any other article published in a communication-related journal in the year 2022.

In academic speak–holy cow!

I have long been interested in getting my work outside the ivory tower and the paywalls of academic journals. It is great to have peers read my work, but if it does not permeate into the “real world,” then I do not meet my goal.

Some academics think public attention to scholarly work is trivial or shows the work is superficial. Hopefully those attitudes continue to change. In the meantime, as a former journalist, I am thrilled to keep talking to journalists and the public about the importance of social science and media psychology in our daily lives and our society at large.

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Memes and Pandemic Stress

As the COVID-19 global pandemic wore on, I noticed more and more memes popping up on social media about the different facets of pandemic life such as working from home, buying toilet paper, and dealing with the stress of this new way of life. After connecting with my fabulous colleagues Robin Nabi and Nick Eng, we mapped out a plan, and wrote a paper about it, published in the journal Psychology of Popular Media in 2021:

Consuming memes during the COVID pandemic: Effects of memes and meme type on COVID-related stress and coping efficacy

The paper received a good deal of popular press attention, which then led me to also write a piece in the The Conversation about our work:

Go ahead, enjoy your memes–they really do help ease pandemic stress

In short, take a break and look at a few memes about whatever is stressing you out. Then, consider getting back to work 🙂

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What happens to audiences when commentators use sexist language to describe female athletes?

The following is a commentary on a recent publication written by me and my collegues, Lauren Smith and Walter Gantz.

Welcome to 2020—it’s an Olympic year! During the next year, athletes from across the country will compete to earn a spot on Team USA for the 2020 Summer Olympics, one of sport’s biggest stages. If trends continue like they did during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, women will comprise the majority of that team. Women’s participation in sports at all levels continues to grow in the United States, and the popularity of women’s sports is rising.

However, the growing role of women in sports is not well-reflected by the on-air personalities who narrate the epic achievements of these athletes. After paying $7.7 billion in 2014, NBCUniversal owns the sole broadcasting rights in the United States for televising the Olympic Games on all media platforms (TV, internet, mobile) through 2032. Analyses from a variety of theoretical and methodological approaches all conclude that sport is by men, for men, and about men. NBC reflects this notion with the cadre of sports commentators who are overwhelmingly male.

Who tells the stories and narrates the feats of female athletes matters for how these athletes are portrayed to the world. During the 2016 games in Rio, this became very clear through a number of incidents that garnered international attention. For instance, Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hozzu broke the world record in the finals of the women’s 400 meter individual medley. After Hozzu touched the wall in first place, NBC cut to Hozzu’s husband, Shane Tusup, and commentator Dan Hicks proclaimed, “There’s the man responsible for turning his wife in to an entirely new swimmer.” In another example that garnered the attention of fans and media critics occurred during coverage of American gymnast Simone Biles competing on the vault during the women’s team preliminary event. Commentators Nastia Liukin and Tim Daggett consistently compared her vaults and ability to that of the male gymnasts. Other examples were less explicitly sexist. During the preliminary rounds of women’s beach volleyball, featuring the American team of Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross, announcers Chris Marlowe and Jason Knapp and reporter Kathryn Tappen repeatedly compared Kerri Walsh Jennings’ style of play to her husband’s as well as made several remarks about her meeting her husband (beach volleyball player Casey Jennings), as well as her role as a wife and mother. This type of commentary focuses on stereotypical female roles and means there is less time spent talking about the players’ athletic feats or the strategies employed during the match itself.

This type of commentary during the Olympics was nothing new, though, as decades of research in sports communication had shown gendered language has been applied to female athletes across sports and nations (check out this study for examples from the 2008 Beijing Olympics and this study for examples from the 2012 London Olympics).

Notably, there is a difference between hostile and benevolent sexism. While hostile sexism—explicitly noting that women are inferior or explicitly stereotyping all women—has become generally unacceptable in mainstream sports broadcasting, stereotypes of females and female athletes in particular still seep into sports commentary, as demonstrated by the examples from NBC’s coverage of the 2016 Games. Benevolent sexism is a subtler form of sexism which can be disarming; language surrounding benevolent sexism is subjectively favorable, yet entrenched in masculine dominance and traditional stereotypes of women.

We know this type of sexism exists in sports media commentary, but what does that mean for viewers and for broadcasters? As athletes-turned-media-researchers, we wanted to investigate the consequences of sexist commentary. That is, how might sexist commentary help shape audience responses to women’s sports, and what implications might it have for broadcasters like NBC who continue to employ commentators who make such remarks?

In order to answer these questions, we conducted a study recently published in Communication Research Reports examining how college students responded to clips of women’s sports from NBC’s coverage of the 2016 Summer Olympics that media critics had previously flagged as examples of sexist commentary. We invited 78 students to come to a computer lab and watch three different clips of NBC’s coverage of women’s sports from the 2016 Rio Olympics. After watching each clip, participants rated their emotional states and enjoyment of the content. Once they finished viewing all three clips, we asked them about their attitudes towards NBC and their intentions to watch future Olympic Games broadcast by NBC.

After analyzing the data we found the men in our study enjoyed watching videos of women’s sports less than the women in our study. We also found that, regardless of the gender of the audience member, listening to sexist commentary did evoke some anger in audiences. Our study demonstrates that emotional responses to sports media are complex and that people can both enjoy watching women’s sports but also experience anger in response to the nature of the commentary or coverage. Finally, we found that when audiences do report feeling angry after viewing women’s sports coverage, then they report enjoying the coverage less, which then results in more negative attitudes towards NBC and lower intentions to watch future coverage of the Olympics.

While this is only one study that needs replicating across more participants and with more examples of sexist commentary, the results do provide a number of important insights for thinking about the implications of sexist commentary. First, the finding that men enjoy watching women’s sports less than women do may not be surprising. But, it suggests that broadcasters have some work to do in promoting and marketing women’s sports to the same degree they do for men’s sports in order to help broaden the fanbase for women’s sports. NBC does have a history of crafting achievement-focused promotions for women’s Olympics sports, such as its “Slay, Girl, Slay” promotions run during the Sochi Winter Olympics. Additional content along those lines, as well as infusing a similar spirit into the commentary itself and not just during promotions, could assist in fostering enjoyment. If women can enjoy watching men’s sports, then men can likely come to enjoy watching women’s sports, too.

Secondly, we know that audiences watch sports for many reasons, but a primary reason is because they derive enjoyment out of the viewing experience. Our research shows that anger can significantly dampen that enjoyment, and subsequently harm brand attitudes and dampen the likelihood of tuning into future Olympic broadcasts. This finding has implications for broadcasters’ bottom lines but also for society. Girls and women also derive many benefits from participant in sports, ranging from physical fitness and mental health/self-esteem benefits to greater academic success and increases in career advancement. Televised sports are a great place to inspire current and future female athletes to pursue sports to their fullest.

For both economic and societal gains, we hope this research motivates broadcasters to employ a more diverse array of commentators, ensure all the commentators on their rosters are aware of benevolent sexism, and implement training on how to avoid promulgating it upon the masses. The idea that ‘if she can’t see it, she can’t be it’ rings true in sport; when girls and young women see women competing in sport, they understand that those opportunities exist for them as well.

As one father tweeted after the NHL All-Star skills competition in 2019, “After watching the NHL All Star skills comp with my almost five-year-old daughter she says “Dad I want to do that.” Our research suggests that, in addition to ‘seeing it,’ it would be helpful to also ‘hear it,’ with commentary that emphasizes athletic accomplishments while avoiding expressions of benevolent sexism. NBC has the opportunity to inspire millions of young girls around the world who will soon be glued to the television watching their favorite Olympians compete to be the best in the world.

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Alan Alda has Parkinson’s Disease: What does this mean for public health?

Alan Alda on M*A*S*H

Alan Alda on M*A*S*H

As Hawkeye on the classic television show M*A*S*H, Alan Alda played a grumpy but lovable army doctor who could repair even the most horrific injuries. Now, though, Alda is facing a medical condition that cannot currently be fixed. The actor announced on July 31 that he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease more than three years ago.

Appearing on CBS This Morning, Alda revealed that after reading one of Jane Brody’s columns for the New York Times, he suspected he might be in the early stages of the disease and asked his doctor for a diagnostic test. His intuition was correct, and ever since his diagnosis, Alda has taken advantage of research on staving off more serious symptoms of the disease through continued exercise and rhythmic movement.

Alda has a right to his privacy. Indeed, he kept the news to himself and his family for the past three years. However, a chain of events occurred once he chose to announce his Parkinson’s diagnosis that research suggests could have important ripple effects on public health.

Research that I and others have conducted shows that when celebrities make announcements about their own illnesses or they die from a particular disease, the public pays a lot of attention to the media coverage generated by these events.

In a survey conducted shortly after Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs died from pancreatic cancer, we found that more than one third (36%) of our sample sought out more information about how Steve Jobs died or his disease and that 7% sought information specifically about pancreatic cancer. While 7% may not seem like much, when multiplied across the population it could mean that millions of individuals would have been educating themselves about this type of cancer. Other researchers have found similar outcomes by analyzing Google searches and finding increased numbers of searchers for words related to cancer after media coverage of celebrity cancer diagnoses.

Our survey also found that people talked to others about pancreatic cancer after Jobs’ death from the disease, and that they were especially likely to do so if they felt emotional about learning the news. We know that health information spread across one’s social networks can help not only provide knowledge but also encourage social support that is crucial in instigating and maintaining many health-related behaviors. Moreover, I have found that reading about a celebrity illness motivates people to not only seek information and talk about it, but to also take action to protect their own health. The communication behaviors that take place after a celebrity illness or death (information seeking and talking to others) seem to help people think through about their own health and decide to take some type of action.

One more point from communication research: my work suggests that the way the public figure frames his or her condition will shape how fearful or hopeful the audience feels. In an experiment, I found that when people read a news article where a celebrity talked about a medical diagnosis such that they focused on the positive outcomes that could come from taking care of one’s health, readers felt more hopeful. Conversely, if participants read a news story where a celebrity focused on the scarier aspects of receiving a diagnosis, the readers themselves experienced more fear. This difference between hope and fear matters because, while fear can motivate attention, hope can sustain effort toward health goals and has been associated with positive changes in health behavior. And Alda was notably hopeful in his announcement of his diagnosis, with the hosts even noting how optimistic he was. This presentation of his disease may have additional benefits for providing hope to the 1 million Americans already diagnosed with the condition, too.

In short, previous findings suggest that Alda’s announcement about Parkinson’s will draw attention to the chronic, debilitating disease. At least some people who learn about Alda’s condition via media coverage will spend some time seeking information about it, and many will talk to others about the disease, potentially leading them to consult with healthcare providers, too. Moreover, Alda’s optimistic but realistic discussion of his condition may provide just the right combination of awareness and inspiration to motivate people to take their health into their own hands while also advocating for additional funding for Parkinson’s research.

Alda is more than a celebrity with a Parkinson’s diagnosis, though. He has devoted a significant portion of his career to finding ways to better communicate issues of science and medicine to the public. He hosted the PBS series Scientific American Frontiers and founded the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. Currently, Alda hosts a podcast called Clear & Vivid where he promotes (no surprise) clear and vivid descriptions of all types of science, but particularly focuses on ways that doctors and other healthcare providers can better communicate with patients. His efforts to educate the public, policy makers, and scientists about the importance of clear communication in these domains is likely to have beneficial effects for public health for years to come.

And finally, let’s not forget how Alda himself came to wonder if he might have Parkinson’s disease. He read a news article about the topic and made the connection to his own experiences in life. By educating the public about diseases, diagnostic tools, and potential remedies or ways to alleviate medical conditions, quality health journalism does more than inform—it can improve quality of life and even save lives. When the media cover issues related to health and science in (as Alda would endorse) clear and vivid ways, we all can benefit.

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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.

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New Book on Emotions and Preventative Messages

Recently my first book was published by Lexington Books. Below is the information from the publisher:

The Role of Emotions in Preventative Health Communication

Health-related media permeate our modern experience, from using an online search engine to reading a pamphlet about vaccinations at the doctor’s office or watching a television news report on the dangers of sitting too much. This book makes the argument that if prevention-focused health messages are to motivate behavior change, they must tug at the heartstrings, and researchers need to understand more precisely how different emotional reactions influence health message effects. In making this case, this book takes a quantitative, social science-based approach to understanding the role of emotions in shaping individual-level effects to preventative health messages disseminated through mass media channels.

The book focuses on how discrete emotions evoked by preventative health media messages influence how audiences respond to those messages. Are they persuaded to change their behavior? Will they seek more information? Will they share information with others? Will they support prevention-focused policies? While a rich literature exists on the effects of health-related fear appeals on audiences, researchers have yet to fully explore the role that other discrete emotions play in health communication processes and outcomes.

This book fills that gap by providing an overview of the role of nine different emotions—both positive and negative—in various prevention-focused health communication settings. It also introduces readers to commonly employed emotional theories and concepts and relates them to literature on prevention-focused health and policy communication. In addition to reviewing and synthesizing the literature, this book offers new directions to researchers hoping to improve the effectiveness of prevention-focused health messages.


“Jessica Gall Myrick takes us on a useful tour of various emotions and deftly applies available research to understanding how people engage health-related messages. As a researcher herself, she is sensitive to the limitations of studies in this area and provides a broad overview that should be relevant for practitioners and researchers interested in preventative health behavior.”
Brian Southwell, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University, Author of Social Networks and Popular Understanding of Science and Health


“Research on emotion will be at the center of health communication scholarship for decades to come. This volume provides researchers with a lucid overview of the topic. It masterfully synthesizes past scholarship and outlines fascinating pathways for future research.”
— Jakob Jensen, Huntsman Cancer Institute, University of Utah

To order the book, please visit the publisher’s website or Amazon.


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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!

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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! 🙂

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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.

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Study about Shark Week published in Science Communication

[Insert Jaws theme music here…]

The journal Science Communication just published an experiment I ran with my good friend Suzannah Evans about the effects of watching Shark Week and watching shark conservation public service announcements. Here’s the link:

We tested how clips from Shark Week that show high levels of shark-on-human violence, mild shark-on-human violence, or no shark-on-human violence and are then followed by one of three commercials (A shark conservation PSA featuring a celebrity, a non-celebrity PSA, or a Wendy’s pretzel burger spot) influence audiences’ fear of sharks, perceived threat of a shark attack, intentions to seek more information about sharks, and intentions to participate in shark conservation efforts.

Photo by Flickr user Richard Ling

We found that any type of shark-on-human violence resulted in increased fear and perceived personal threat of a shark attack, even after seeing a PSA stating that shark attacks are rare and humans are the ones killing sharks at a dangerously high rate, forcing many shark species to the brink of extinction. Our brains may know the statistics, but our hearts react strongly to graphic images of shark teeth and blood in the water.

We did find, however, that viewing a shark conservation PSA resulted in higher intentions to seek shark information and to support conservation compared to those who did not see a PSA. So, these messages were not entirely ineffective for the conservation groups who run them alongside the ever-popular Shark Week. Additionally, we found that feelings of compassion and interest generated by viewing the PSAs were strong predictors of intentions to support shark conservation.

This experiment wasn’t just an academic exercise. The Discovery Channel really does air shark conservation PSAs during Shark Week programming. Our study showed that this practice, while bringing attention to shark conservation, doesn’t necessarily correct or alleviate the public’s fear of sharks and overstated perceptions of their own chances of being attacked. More work remains to be done in this area to see how messages can influence public support for conservation.

It was a really fun study to do and I must also thank Scott for helping us edit the stimulus materials together.

July 2015 Update:

During Shark Week 2015, this study received some media attention. Check out these articles, many featuring interviews with my fabulous co-author Suzannah Evans:


HuffPost Science

WUNC North Carolina Public Radio

Hakai Magazine

Southern Fried Science

And, click here to read an op-ed Suzannah and I wrote for The Conversation about this study and its implications for mediated conservation efforts.

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