Wunpini Fatimata Mohammed awarded 2022-2023 Sarah H. Moss Fellowship

Wunpini Fatimata Mohammed, assistant professor in Entertainment and Media Studies, has been named a recipient of a 2022-2023 Sarah H. Moss Fellowship. 

Administered by the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Georgia, the fellowship provides funds for travel and related expenses for tenure-track faculty pursuing advanced scholarship, research and study.

Mohammed’s research project is titled, “Media and Decolonization: Re-righting the Subaltern Histories of Ghana.” With this funding, she plans to travel to several cities in Ghana, including Tamale and Accra, to conduct archival research, ethnographic observations and follow-up interviews to supplement research already done which will become a scholarly book.

Wunpini Mohammed, assistant professor in EMST, teaches Entertainment Media Analysis outside in the Media Garden.
Wunpini Mohammed, assistant professor in EMST, teaches Entertainment Media Analysis outside in the Media Garden. (Photo: Sarah Freeman)

“In this research project, I am interested in examining the silenced histories of media in African communities that have historically been shut out of their own representations,” said Mohammed.

“I am going back to my community in Ghana to learn more about the media cultures of the country to satisfy some of the curiosities I had growing up as a child,” she continued. “I will be examining content on mediums such as radio and TV, focusing on how they have served as a tool for marginalization and a site of resistance within this community.”

Mohammed will be spending time at the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation in Accra to sort through their archives and gather data to support the section of her book on technology and media development in Ghana.

Mohammed will also spend time at community gatherings to learn more about community relationships with media at the regional and national level. In Tamale, she will be hosted by the  Department of Communication, Innovation, and Technology of the University for Development Studies. 

“Growing up, I barely saw representations about me and my community in national media. This sparked my interest in media and the politics of media representation,” Mohammed said about what motivated her to pursue this research topic. “These experiences have inspired me to contribute to building knowledge in the field of media so that the people who come after me will have something to build on too.”

The camera eats first: Q&A with Kyser Lough

Assistant Professor Kyser Lough teaches in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communications’ photojournalism program and studies visual communication, with an emphasis on photojournalism, as well as solutions journalism. In this interview, Lough discusses the continuing role of photojournalists in an age of ubiquitous imagery, and how he teaches his students to navigate that landscape. Read more about his research here.

How do you describe photojournalism research?

You can think of it several different ways, and the first is looking at the images themselves: What are the images telling us? How are they chosen? What’s being left out? Who is in the image? What kind of effects do these images have on people? That’s a big question surrounding conflict photography especially—we need these photos to see what’s going on, but what kind of toll is it taking on us to constantly see images of conflict?

What we often forget about is there’s a person behind the camera making these pictures, and that person has to physically be there. During the pandemic a lot of reporters were stuck at home; they were calling their sources and having Zoom meetings. The photographers had to go to these places to make these photos. So there are a lot of questions surrounding access and embodiment when it comes to being a photojournalist—how they have to use their bodies in the act of photography, not just to maneuver to make photos but also in negotiating for access to where they need to be.

It’s also fascinating to dig into photographers’ minds and ask about their process. How do they look for things to photograph? How do they decide what, who and when to photograph? When you combine that with talking about access and embodiment, it gives us a deeper look into the images.

As a visual communicator, what your thoughts about how the media world we live in has changed over the last two or three decades?

It’s definitely changed how we think of images. We toggle back and forth between seeing images as pure, unadulterated reality or pure, unadulterated fiction. It’s something we have to consider when we think about modern-day news literacy. In being worried about misinformation and disinformation, we need to really look at images. Part of that is putting the focus back on the image creator and the image owner. Just like we try and vet news sources, we also need to vet image sources and understand that many different things could have happened between an image being captured and us seeing it.

With deep fake video technology and ever more sophisticated photo-editing software, how are we going to determine the truth of an image in the future?

There is fascinating work being done on this right now. Part of it is news literacy and training us to have a healthy dose of skepticism when consuming news. But on the other end, there are computer scientists developing algorithms to analyze and detect alteration in images and video.

From the professional side, there are organizations and people working to prevent it on the creation end. So instead of trying to detect a fake image, it’s about providing a certificate of authenticity: “This image is real.” The Content Authenticity Initiative is probably the biggest one right now, where they are working with Adobe and other folks to essentially create a uneditable chain of edits and history on a photo. You can see the date and time the image was taken, but also see that it was loaded into Photoshop and these different edits were made. If that’s widely adopted—and the problem is it has to be adopted—then we can use that to vet images before they are out there and manipulated.

Dr. Kyser Lough Assistant Professor, Journalism
“We toggle back and forth between seeing images as pure, unadulterated reality or pure, unadulterated fiction. It’s something we have to consider when we think about modern-day news literacy,” Lough said. “Just like we try and vet news sources, we also need to vet image sources and understand that many different things could have happened between an image being captured and us seeing it.” (Photo by Jason Thrasher)
On a more positive note, all this changing technology and media affords a lot more possibilities to photojournalists in how they create and publish and share their work. What do you teach your students about how to leverage that to their advantage?

We start with the core foundation that storytelling matters, first and foremost. It has to be a good story. It has to be a good moment. We have to be people-focused. We start there, and then we can think about the platforms we use to tell this story. It’s so easy to get lost in the shiny new thing and forget we have to start as good journalists and good storytellers.

Now that everyone has a camera in their pocket, do we still need photojournalists?

That’s such a great question. In 2009, an airplane landed in the Hudson River in New York, and one of the first images to spread from that was not taken by a photojournalist—it was taken by a man on a ferry with a cell phone. He uploaded it to Twitter, and within minutes it was all over the place. Of course, now that’s commonplace. We know when something’s happening, and we’re not just seeing pictures posted—we’re seeing people livestreaming from their phones.

It’s very important for society to have that ability, for us to be able to witness and surveil as private citizens. On the other side of it, however, I firmly believe it’s still important to have photojournalists and trained storytellers out there because of the ethics and sensitivity surrounding a lot of the stories we’re trying to tell.

Journalism should be independent. There should be no conflict of interest; the journalist covering the story should not be involved in the story. The journalist’s images, while not being completely objective, are still representative of an independent observer who has been trained in how to be fair and how to cover the story and how to skillfully use the equipment. We still need journalists to tell these stories and uncover instances where power is being abused, and especially to protect the vulnerable.

Are your students more sophisticated about visual communications, having grown up with Instagram and Twitter and all of these new media?

I like to think so. It’s hard to think back to a time when we didn’t have a camera in our pocket, although it hasn’t been that long when you think about it. The biggest shift has been in the visual literacy students have in how the cell phone camera has allowed them to regularly observe and document their daily life. Once on a study abroad program we sat down to dinner, and the students brought out their phones and took pictures of the food. The phrase they taught me was: “Phone eats first.” And I love it. There’s no shame in it. I mean, when else in history has it been this easy to just snag a picture of anything and then go back and use the photo as a memory device?

Dr. Kyser Lough Assistant Professor, Journalism
Despite all the new technologies in photography that have emerged over recent decades, Lough teaches his students that basic principles still apply when it comes to photojournalism. “Storytelling matters, first and foremost,” he said. “We start there, and then we can think about the platforms we use to tell this story. It’s so easy to get lost in the shiny new thing and forget we have to start as good journalists and good storytellers.” (Photo by Jason Thrasher)
What’s the best photo you’ve ever taken?

Recently I haven’t been able to do as much photography as I have in the past, because my priorities are research and teaching. But we take our students out into the world as much as possible to get experiential learning, so I like to try and turn the camera around on them and those have been my favorite recent photos—the pictures of my students photographing. I’ve really enjoyed documenting the process as they grab their cameras and go out and do things. When I’ve taught study abroad, I took pictures of them photographing, and at the end of the program I wrote them a note and gave each one pictures of them out making photos.

The other answer to that question would be the times that I haven’t taken a picture. This is something that I usually wrap my photo classes with, this idea that just because we can doesn’t mean we should, especially in the day and age when we all have a camera in our pocket. I challenge my students to think about when to take a picture and when to simply use your five senses to really sit in that moment. Not everything has to be photographed.

The above feature was originally written and posted by UGA Research, and can also be round on the UGA Research website


Undergraduate student finds place in DMAC Lab

When Charan Ramachandran acted on his genuine curiosity of exploring a subject outside of his normal coursework, it paid big dividends—not just for him, but also for the professor.

Ramachandran, a graduating fourth-year student who majored in Entertainment and Media Studies and computer science, reached out to Bart Wojdynski, director of the Digital Media Attention and Cognition Lab, his freshman year asking if he could be involved with projects the lab was researching. Ramachandran participated in the experimental Research Living Learning Community his freshman year and one of the topics was encouraging students to reach out to professors whose work is of interest. Ramachandran learned of Wojdynski’s research with eye-tracking and wanted to understand more so he reached out.

Charan Ramachandran and Bart Wojdynski look at the eyetracking software in the DMAC Lab.
Charan Ramachandran and Bart Wojdynski look at the eye-tracking software in the DMAC Lab.

“I remember he said ‘I don’t know what I’m interested in, but for now I want to see what you are doing and how I can help,’” remembered Wojdynski, a Jim Kennedy New Media Professor and associate professor of journalism. “As time went by, he became an indispensable team player and helped with things we couldn’t do otherwise.”

Four years after volunteering as a research associate with the DMAC Lab, Ramachandran has some research credits on his resume and several new skills to take into the work force.

“The DMAC Lab has taught me a lot,” Ramachandran said. “My work there taught me how to produce an application on time and test it before delivery. For instance, I hadn’t developed mobile applications before, but this pushed me to learn how to do that and figure it out.

I have Dr. Wojdynski to thank for all that.”

Research in the DMAC Lab uses eye-tracking technology to study how consumers view and evaluate media message on a variety of platforms, including websites and mobile devices. Despite a pause in activities due to COVID, Ramachandran participated in numerous research projects including a Center for Undergraduate Research Opportunities presentation analyzing social media by health orgs related to opioid epidemic and designing a web-based Twitter feed.

The largest project he was involved with was designing a custom Instagram app that was used in one of the first eye-tracking studies involving Instagram on a mobile device. Wojdynski explained that during COVID, it became clear that there were a lot of researchers interested in effects of viewing social media content in a realistic setting. In Jan 2021, the DMAC Lab purchased a new eye tracker and mobile phone stand with a high-definition video connection to the phone, allowing researchers to record everything on screen as the viewers scrolled their device.

As the lab group was designing a study to test effects of social media content, Ramachandran suggested the team build its own customizable Instagram app to present the content just like users typically view it.

Close-up of eye-tracking machine gathering data from an Iphone.
A close-up of the new eye-tracker that records and collects data based on sample content viewed on mobile phones. Ramachandran designed a customizable Instagram app to present content just like users typically view it.

“He learned code in Swift, but had to figure out a lot along the way to make it as realistic as possible,” Wojdynski continued. “Designing a submission form for creating custom posts, with time stamps , the number of likes, how to have hashtags to show up blue, a carousel effect—Charan figured out how to create all of that and presented four or five versions. It was amazing.”

The research will be presented at the International Communication Association conference in Paris in late May.

In addition to practical skills and research experience, Ramachandran found a network of friends.

“When we are in the lab, it doesn’t feel like a hierarchy at all,” Ramachandran concluded. “Dr. Wojdynski—he’s one of us and I’m one of them. Even though I’m an undergraduate, I feel like part of a team and put in a lot of effort to be an active member. I’ve made a lot of great friendships there.”

Ramachandran graduates in May and will move to California this summer to start work as a software engineer with YouTube.

Grady students to present research at CURO Symposium

On April 4, two Grady College undergraduate students, Ireland Hayes and Josie Lipton, will be presenting their research at the CURO Symposium, an annual event highlighting undergraduate research at the University of Georgia. 

Held by the Center for Undergraduate Research Opportunities, this year’s symposium will take place from April 4-5 at the Classic Center in downtown Athens and feature both oral and poster presentations from UGA students. It is the first CURO Symposium since 2019 to be held in person. 

Ireland Hayes presents “Making the News: Rural Georgia Influencers”

Hayes, a third-year journalism major from Folkston, Georgia, will be presenting her research on how small communities throughout the state without traditional news coverage, like a daily paper or local news station, are filling those gaps. 

“I’m looking mostly at Facebook groups, talking to the administrators and moderators of the groups to see how they view themselves and how they decide what goes on and what might get taken off of the pages,” said Hayes, who has been working with Karin Assmann, assistant professor of journalism, as her mentor.  

Ireland Hayes sitting outside of Grady College working on her computer.
Hayes, who is from a mostly rural area in southern Georgia, said her hometown receives Jacksonville news. (Photo: Jessica Gratigny)

“When Ireland heard that I was working on a study about rural information networks here in Georgia, she asked if she could participate with her own set of research questions,” Assmann said. With her Qualitative Research Lab, Assmann hopes to support more students like Hayes and Lipton, as well as graduate students interested in doing this kind of research with her. 

“It’s exciting to see our student journalists wanting to engage with larger questions about the future of the industry and journalism’s role in society,” Assman added. “CURO is a great way to support these emerging scholars as they take their first steps into research.”  

“Dr. Assmann has been very helpful in getting me into that research mindset and teaching me how to conduct research, guiding me through that as I start this first project,” said Hayes. 

With first-hand experience living in a Georgia news desert, Hayes’ ultimate goal is to identify what impact Facebook groups and rural influencers have on news-starved communities. She is evaluating if Facebook groups are used out of necessity or if they are desirable. 

While her research is ongoing, Hayes intends to use the results to develop a pilot information pipeline system that is ideal for these rural news deserts. 

“That is the end goal of all of this,” said Hayes. “How can we create something to fill that need for reliable local information that is more fact-checked and standardized?”

Ireland Hayes' poster displaying her research.
Ireland Hayes’ poster displaying her research. (Created by Ireland Hayes.)
Josie Lipton presents “One Town, One Newspaper: A Case Study of Information Routines Among Citizens of Oglethorpe County, Georgia”

Lipton, a third-year journalism major from Seattle, is also studying news deserts. However, her research focuses specifically on Oglethorpe County, an area that recently had its local 148-year-old newspaper, The Oglethorpe Echo, revitalized thanks to a partnership with Grady and its students. 

Josie Lipton works on her research while sitting outside of Grady College.
Lipton, a third-year student, hopes to attend law school in the future. (Photo: Jessica Gratigny)

“UGA joined the project as a way to take over the paper and make sure that people in Oglethorpe County still have a news source, but they do still only have the one paper. So, my research, to sum it up, is about finding a balance between where people are getting their official news and how the community supplements that,” explained Lipton. 

And where do they turn? Again, the answer is Facebook. 

“You hear this association between Facebook and news and you immediately get goosebumps as a journalism major,” said Lipton. “But, it is really not as bad as you think.”

“It is a lot of smaller groups that function just to discuss what is going on in the community,” she added. “I found that a lot of people who are in charge of the big groups are like newsmakers. Because they’re informed on what is happening in the community, they use Facebook as a platform to keep other people informed.”

Lipton dissected the types of posts and topics discussed on Oglethorpe County Facebook news groups and determined that the topics “pets” and “events” comprised 56 percent of all content. She also interviewed the administrators of Oglethorpe County’s Facebook groups and found that residents view Facebook as a tool to get immediate access to information. 

“By the time a story came out in the Echo, it was already old news. Having Facebook groups allows for more immediate access…to things going on in the county,” Stephanie Maro, the administrator of the Facebook group Oglethorpe County Local News, told Lipton during her research. 

Lipton, who is also mentored by Professor Assmann, and whose research will contribute to Assmann’s ongoing project, thanks both Assmann and Kyser Lough, an assistant professor of journalism, for help and inspiration with her research. 

“Of course I thank Dr. Assmann,” said Lipton. “Dr. Lough has also been really helpful. He wasn’t directly involved in this research project. But just by taking his classes, I’d say he was really helpful in terms of encouraging me to see people how they are. I took his photojournalism class, and that really helped me get over my anxiety when approaching people.”

Josie Lipton's poster. Created by Josie Lipton.
Josie Lipton’s poster displaying her research. (Created by Josie Lipton.)

Both Hayes and Lipton will be presenting their research on posters in the Grand Hall of the Classic Center from 4 to 6 p.m. on Monday, April 4. 

NIH awards $4 million grant to Emory University and University of Georgia to launch center focused on improving the health of Black children

Sun Joo “Grace” Ahn named co-director of Center for Children’s Health Assessment, Research Translation and Combating Racism

Many Black communities in Metro Atlanta face high levels of environmental exposures that can negatively impact the health of Black children, and scientists are faced with the challenge of effectively communicating the dangers of environmental exposures to diverse communities. To address these issues, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has awarded a $4 million five-year grant to support research related to addressing health disparities through transformative communication strategies.

Sun Joo “Grace” Ahn, associate professor of advertising at Grady College, will direct the health communication initiatives of the grant and serve as co-director of the newly created Center for Children’s Health Assessment, Research Translation and Combating Racism.

With this grant, an Emory-led team of environmental health scientists and health communication experts from the University of Georgia will join forces to translate important environmental health research findings to key stakeholders in the community, academia and health care systems. The new Center will develop high-impact messaging strategies that can be used to improve children’s health by focusing on health literacy and best practices in prevention communication and dissemination.

Faculty from the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University and Spelman College, one of nation’s most prestigious historically black colleges for women, will also play a critical role in advancing the science generated by the Center and ensuring meaningful discussions and rapid feedback between a community advisory board and all members of the Center.

Linda McCauley, dean and professor at Emory University’s Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing, will direct the new Center.

“This Center is uniquely positioned to foster excellence in research on children’s environmental health that will nurture the next generation of scientists and provide information that can benefit the Atlanta community, which has suffered from decades of environmental racism and has many of the highest levels of health disparities in the nation,” said McCauley. “Our goal is to improve the health of children, and we know better communications will lead to prevention and early detection of environmental health exposures.”

Ahn, who also directs the Games and Virtual Environments Lab at Grady College, will use her expertise in interactive digital media and health messaging at the new Center.

“We hope to expand the public health impact of children’s environmental health science by synthesizing existing research into innovative health communication interventions, curricula and policies,” Ahn said of the new project. “Together, we will identify target audiences among marginalized and under-resourced populations and design innovative health messages that can help us better communicate with audiences that have traditionally been challenging to reach.”

The Center will also partner with Sharecare, the digital health company whose comprehensive and data-driven virtual health platform helps people, providers, employers, health plans, government organizations, and communities optimize individual and population-wide well-being by driving positive behavior change.

Donna Hill Howes, RN, MS, chief nursing officer and SVP, corporate partnerships of Sharecare, commented, “Increasing access to information about children’s environmental health is critical to building strong, healthy communities. Working closely with our partners at Emory, UGA, and the Center, we believe that, together, we can effectively support the translation of health science to action-oriented information by leveraging our content and products, connecting stakeholders across fields, and utilizing our national reach to augment children’s environmental health.”

Emory is one of six academic institutions in a network of Children’s Environmental Health Research Translation Centers in the U.S., and it will serve as the National Coordinating Center for the network. The Coordinating Center will be led by Nsedu Obot Witherspoon, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Children’s Environmental Health Network. Other Centers were awarded to Johns Hopkins University, Oregon State University, the University of Pennsylvania, New York University, and the University of Southern California.

Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number P2CES033430. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

NIEHS supports research to understand the effects of the environment on human health and is part of the National Institutes of Health.

2021 in Review: Research & Grants

Editor’s Note: This is part of our  five-part series highlighting stories produced by Grady College in 2021. The features includes three stories in each of the following subjects:
  • Student Successes
  • Faculty Honors
  • College Headlines
  • Research & Grants
  • Service & Partnerships
This is not intended to be a comprehensive list, but instead highlight a sample of just a few of the more than 210 stories about accomplishments by our students, faculty/staff and alumni.
We invite you to visit our Grady College News page for a full list of features posted in 2021. 

Research and teaching are the cornerstones of the work at the College and 2021 was no exception. Our Ph.D. students researched vital topics in their disciplines, winning honors and awards, while our faculty received accolades for their work, especially through their involvement with the 2021 AEJMC conference. Several faculty received grants this year, as well. Following are among the highlights of a busy year:

AdPR excels in advertising research productivity: A study published in July by the Journal of Business Research named faculty in our Department of Advertising and Public Relations the most visible authors or co-authors in the three leading peer-reviewed advertising research journals from 2008 to 2019. The study, “A Decade (2008-2019) of Advertising Research Productivity: A Bibliometric Review,” involved two reference and citation reviews: one of 818 articles published in Journal of Advertising (JA), Journal of Advertising Research (JAR), and Journal of Current Issues and Research in Advertising (JCIRA), and the second of 1,532 articles published in those journals plus 15 other journals where scholarly research in advertising is frequently published.

Michael Cacciatore awarded $2.5 million grant for research: Michael Cacciatore, co-director of the Center for Health and Risk Communication at Grady College, was awarded a $2.5 million grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation’s Advancing Informal STEM Learning program in August. The funds will provide research for PBS Digital Studios’ TERRA, its science-themed hub on YouTube, as they launch a new slate of STEM content.

Ahn leads VR project with grant from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association: In September, Sun Joo “Grace” Ahn and a team of researchers were announced as recipients of a nearly $500,000 grant funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. The grant will fund a project called “Salient, Interactive, Relevant, Confidence, and Action (SIRCA): Using Virtual Reality Storm Surge Simulations to Increase Risk Perception and Prevention Behaviors.” The project uses VR to better communicate and educate the risks of storm surge and climate change among coastal residents of Georgia and South Carolina.


Words matter most when responding to a crisis

When responding to crisis situations, what is said matters more than nonverbal cues, according to new research by the University of Georgia Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.

The study, “(In)Sincere Demeanor and (In)Sincere Language in Crisis Communication,” evaluated the perceived sincerity of messages during a crisis, examining company spokespersons’ use of language and non-verbal cues.

“Just because someone looks calm, doesn’t mean they are honest, and if someone is fidgeting and doesn’t make eye contact, it doesn’t mean they are not telling the truth.” —David Clementson

“This research showed that words trump behavior,” said David Clementson, co-author of the research and assistant professor of public relations at Grady College. “Deceptive demeanor has its limit when we get to serious scandals. The general public will lock into verbal sincerity and will not be as easily led astray by nonverbal impressions.”

The research evaluated responses from more than 800 people who were randomly assigned to watch one of four videos, all involving a reporter and a company spokesperson responding to a racial scandal. The videos included the following scenarios:

  • The spokesperson delivers the message using normal best practices of crisis communication while appearing calm and confident.
  • The spokesperson delivers the message using normal best practices, but appears uncooperative, is fidgeting and avoiding eye contact.
  • The spokesperson delivers an unclear, evasive and dodgy message while appearing calm and confident.
  • The spokesperson delivers an unclear message and appears uncooperative, is fidgeting and avoiding eye contact.

The researchers asked the respondents to comment on the video they watched agreeing or disagreeing on whether the message was favorably accepted, if there would be negative word-of-mouth comments about the company after the message was delivered and whether the company was to blame for the crisis based on the corporate response.

Clementson said the best approach for company spokepersons when responding to a crisis is to appear sincere in outward demeanor and also in clear and relevant language. They should have content in the message that acknowledges the problem, apologizes for the damage caused and explains the action being taken to avoid the situation in the future.

Many times, however, legal counsel or others involved coach spokespersons against taking responsibility and avoid answering questions with a lot of detail.

“Sincerity as a demeanor cue is almost always misleading,” Clementson said. “Just because someone looks calm doesn’t mean they are honest, and if someone is fidgeting and doesn’t make eye contact, it doesn’t mean they are not telling the truth.”

Prior to the research, Clementson expected the results to show that if the spokesperson appeared sincere, the company could get away with dodging questions and not apologizing. However, based on the findings, words and not the nonverbal cues were the most important factor.

Clementson said that sincerity in crisis situations is a key to the long-range success of companies, and the same concepts can be applied to politicians and celebrities, as well.

The research was published in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology and was co-authored by Tyler Page of the Department of Communication at the University of Connecticut.

UGA and UMD researchers partner to explore strategies for combatting misinformation during health crises

Yan Jin and Brooke Fisher Liu lead FDA sponsored research to gather evidence to guide future messaging.

In the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, researchers at the University of Maryland (UMD) and the University of Georgia (UGA) are collaborating with researchers at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER) Office of Communications to develop and test messaging strategies that can help overcome misinformation that arises during public health emergencies.

Brooke Fisher Liu, professor in UMD’s Department of Communication, and Yan Jin, professor of public relations and Georgia Athletic Association Professor at UGA’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, will develop and test message strategies concerning vital health information that can help keep people safe.

“Past research found a clear link between COVID-19 misinformation exposure and vaccine hesitancy,” said Liu, the project’s principal investigator. “Research also connects misinformation exposure to lower compliance with government health and safety guidance. In short, misinformation is just as great of a threat to public health as the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease, but our knowledge is limited on how to combat misinformation.”

Through two large-scale experiments on how messages containing misinformation and various types of responses are interpreted by U.S. adults, the researchers will be among the first to explore how public health misinformation can be corrected through strategic risk communication and what methods work best in thwarting misinformation.

“This project exemplifies the importance and promising future for more collaborative risk and crisis communication research across universities and with the government to provide theory-driven, evidenced-based insights to protect public health and safety,” said Jin, the project’s co-principal investigator.

The FDA is investing nearly $225,000 to fund the three-year project, which began in October 2021. The research team will  recommend best practices for how public health agencies can combat health misinformation for the COVID-19 pandemic and future threats.

The team defines misinformation as a claim of fact that is false due to a lack of scientific evidence or conflicting scientific evidence. The researchers will conduct online experiments gathering information on how adults respond to medical and health misinformation. The research team will also provide a targeted deep-dive analysis of previous research to identify best communication practices that promote safety during public health crises.

Liu and Jin are two of the leading risk and crisis communication scholars in the world. Their collaborative work dates back to 2001, when they both studied in the graduate program at the Missouri School of Journalism. They are joined by Tori McDermott, graduate research assistant from the UMD, and Xuerong Lu, graduate research assistant from the UGA.

“It is a great opportunity for me, as a young scholar in crisis communication, to collaborate with Dr. Liu and Dr. Jin to significantly advance research and practice in misinformation management,” said Lu.

The research findings will provide an opportunity to address real-time challenges, and the lessons learned from them, to guide future leadership decisions in health communication. The mission behind this research is to equip authorities with communication to respond to misinformation in a way that protects public health and safety.

“As an emerging scholar, I am so grateful to work on a project of this magnitude not only to help mitigate the negative effects of infodemics, but also to learn from Dr. Liu and Dr. Jin how scholarship can inform and change practice and policy to better society,” said McDermott.


Study shows less can be more when building rapport in interviews

This story was originally published on UGA Today

Sometimes less is more, at least when it comes to building rapport during interviews.

That’s according to new research from the University of Georgia, which reveals that verbal interviewing techniques have a greater impact than nonverbal techniques—and combining the two had a detrimental effect.

The new study led by Eric Novotny, a postdoctoral research associate at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, was published in Communication Studies. Based on a laboratory experiment that compared the effectiveness of verbal and nonverbal techniques in building rapport, it provides useful insight for situations like doctor-patient interviews, job interviews and police investigative interviews.

“It was a bit of a surprise to find that using verbal and nonverbal techniques together backfired,” Novotny said. “In hindsight it was probably seen as forced or too much, making the interviewee feel that any rapport that resulted was fake. The bottom line is that using one technique or the other is better than neither or both.”

During the experiment, Novotny performed one-on-one interviews with 80 participants involving their personal histories. He practiced active listening—using simple indicators of agreement (e.g., “uh-huh,” “I see”), that encouraged the subject to continue—with all participants, but used four different strategies.

Verbal and nonverbal interview tactics

With one group, Novotny used verbal commonalities, disclosing information about his own life (both real and fabricated) to establish common ground. Previous research indicates that people tend to like and feel similar to those who disclose information to them.

With a second group, Novotny used a nonverbal technique called mirroring, the largely nonconscious imitation of another person’s body postures and movements, a strategy that has long been linked to an increase in rapport among interactive partners. He attempted to mimic the body postures and arm/leg placements of the participant (e.g., arms on the table and legs crossed) within approximately two seconds of witnessing it.

With a third group, Novotny combined the verbal commonality and mirroring strategies. With the fourth group, or control group, he did not employ either strategy.

Prior to being interviewed, participants completed a document that required them to rank 10 topics (academics, athletics, family, finances, friends, leisure, medical history, mental health, pet ownership, romance) in terms of how personal they were. The interviewer used these responses to choose topics for the interview. After the interviews, participants rated how willing they were to continue discussions with the interviewer, as an indicator of rapport.

What communication techniques were most effective for building rapport?

Results indicated that participants were more willing to discuss personal topics when verbal commonalities were used alone, versus in conjunction with nonverbal mirroring. In the group that experienced mirroring, participants were more willing to disclose personal information with the interviewer, but not at a rate that was significantly different from the control group. The combined condition produced the lower rapport of any group.

“Based on the literature, we knew that verbal and nonverbal techniques work to help build rapport during an interview, but we didn’t know what happened if you used both,” Novotny said. “This applies to everything from investigative interviewing to therapists and their clients, so we were interested in knowing which technique—or combination of techniques—was going to be most effective.”

While verbal commonalities and techniques that employ mirroring body language can be applied with minimal training and preparation, Novotny notes that interviewers should be aware of their cognitive load during the interview. Between formulating questions, writing, listening and attempting to build rapport, interviewers can easily get overloaded and be less effective—though that can be improved with training, he said.

Alternatively, the combined use of both techniques could seem forced or phony to participants. Novotny believes that once a person realizes someone is actively seeking rapport or manipulating them, it backfires, wiping out any gain from the verbal or nonverbal technique.

Despite the challenges, Novotny was surprised by the participants’ willingness to discuss sensitive topics.

“It was interesting how willing random strangers were to tell me their deepest, darkest secrets,” he said. “I think, because I was a stranger and they’d never see me again, they were more willing to open up to a simple question like, ‘Why is your financial history so private to you?’ And then they would start discussing their money troubles.”

Co-authors on the study include Mark G. Frank, University at Buffalo, SUNY, and Matthew Grizzard, The Ohio State University.

Jeong-Yeob Han partners in grant funded by Office on Violence Against Women

Jeong-Yeob Han, director of the Strategic Health and Risk Communication certificate, joins Joon Choi, an associate professor at the School of Social Work, in receiving a two-year, $477,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women to address domestic violence in the Asian immigrant community.

Known as Korean Americans for Healthy Families, the program will seek to change norms around domestic violence in that community, striving to both prevent domestic violence and expand access to needed resources and services for immigrant survivors of domestic violence.

Han said the project will increase scientific understanding of the effectiveness of culturally specific and technology-informed strategies to change community norms.

“It has the real potential to reduce the disparity of accessing resources and services for Asian victims of domestic violence by identifying barriers and facilitators to access the criminal justice system and get valuable services,” said Han, an associate professor of advertising.

This community-level intervention effort features two components — a virtual simulation training along with in-person workshops to better equip faith leaders who assist Asian survivors of domestic violence, as well as a communications campaign focused on strengthening community attitudes that both condemn domestic violence and facilitate access for survivors to necessary services.

Han is an expert on the implementation and evaluation of communication campaigns and will increase the amount of information to the immigrant Asian community members and survivors in the metro Chicago area. The multimedia campaigns will involve daily newspapers, radio and television and will be supplemented by promotional materials displayed at local stores and a social media campaign partnering with a local agency.

Choi is the principal investigator and Pamela Orpinas from the College of Public Health serves as a co-investigators.