By Robert Strenge, WSU News
PULLMAN, Wash. – When Washington State University became one of the first college campuses to be hard hit by an outbreak of the H1N1 flu virus three years ago, enterprising researchers at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication found some college students here were likely to be confident they could acquire the information needed to either prevent themselves from catching or properly self-treat the disease – even when they were wrong.
The study was initiated, the researchers said, because students were inundated with information from a wide variety of sources, some of which provided good information and some of which featured inaccuracies and drama. This presented a major problem for students because public health clinics and physicians’ offices inundated with patients were encouraging people to self-diagnose, self- treat and avoid exposing others to the virus. To do so successfully, students needed to use information sources effectively.
Recognizing that the outbreak and its associated news coverage offered a useful case study for evaluating how young adults incorporated news and other information sources into their handling of the virus outbreak, lead researchers Erica Austin and Bruce Pinkleton developed an online survey, administered by John Tarnai and Bruce Austin from WSU’s Social and Economic Sciences Research Center. The survey was eventually taken by nearly 1,400 WSU residential college students. More than 70 percent of the respondents were undergraduates.
“Students affected by the H1N1 outbreak needed to know enough about the disease to discount the sometimes overblown international media coverage and to make effective use of more information-rich sources,” said Austin. ”Our interest was in determining what kind of specific skills would predict which students would succeed.”
To do so, Austin, Pinkleton and Rebecca Van de Vord of WSU’s Global Campus designed the survey to compare how students’ confidence that they could acquire useful information and their ability to analyze and evaluate messages from a wide variety of sources could predict their success in either preventing or effectively treating the influenza.
“Students who self-diagnosed correctly demonstrated higher-level skills in both the ability to acquire information and the ability to analyze and compare information from multiple sources,” said Pinkleton.
“Among those who self-diagnosed incorrectly, the only predictor of knowledge was how much they depended on information being easily accessible, and that predicted less knowledge not more.”
Those who diagnosed themselves correctly evaluated sources for their expertise, he said.
“The crucial difference between the two groups wasn’t in how well they could find information online, but in how well they could assess the quality of the information and the information sources that they found,” said Pinkleton.
The researchers said young adults tend to get most of their news online and often employ heuristics based on such things as website design and organization to weed out sites they choose not to use.
“Sometimes they base credibility perceptions on the apparent professionalism of the site design and ease of navigation, said Austin. “Online information seekers also value their ability to access information quickly and easily.”
Experts, however, recommend using a variety of substantive criteria, such as the currency of the information, the expertise of the author, a statement of purpose or mission statement for the site, use of substantiating evidence with source, or links to external site information, she said.
“In other words, it is important for individuals to identify who is behind the message in order to understand the intent of the message,” said Pinkleton. “It also is important for them to be able to compare the accuracy and completeness of information across multiple sources.”
The researchers said their results highlight that young adults, unaccustomed to caring for their own health in relative isolation from their usual caregivers, must learn to distinguish between high- and low-quality information.
The study, entitled The Relationships of Information Efficacy and Media Literacy Skills to Knowledge and Self-efficacy for Health-Related Decision Making, was published online recently in the Journal of American College Health.
“The media environment includes often-frightening coverage from entities employing dramatic strategies intended to attract a large market share,” the study’s authors write. “As a result, students need to be able to distinguish real threats from exaggerated or inaccurate ones. College health practitioners can help by ensuring students have easy access to high-quality information and by helping students to develop media literacy skills for evaluating other sources.”
“Fortunately for WSU students, the university’s health and wellness experts provided easily accessible, clear information, and that helped most students deal effectively with the outbreak,” said Austin.
Austin is director and Pinkleton is associate director of The Murrow Center for Media & Health Promotion Research in the Murrow College of Communication at WSU. The center is engaged in the development and evaluation of health communication campaign strategies that make flexible use of a full range of media platforms to affect social development and quality of life. Projects funded by federal, state and private grants support graduate and undergraduate student involvement in campaign planning and research. The Center is top-ranked nationally by ComVista for research on advertising effects, substance abuse prevention and media literacy. Its research findings have been featured frequently in policy papers released by the American Academy of Pediatrics regarding the connections between the media and children’s health.
Erica Austin, Professor, Edward R. Murrow College of Communication, 509-335-8840, firstname.lastname@example.org
Bruce Pinkleton, Professor, Edward R. Murrow College of Communication,
Robert Strenge, WSU News, 509-335-3583, email@example.com