The Media’s Role

Social distancing resistance highlights media’s role and challenges during pandemic

By Haley Bills

A Bucky Badger statue at the Memorial Union serves as an example to Madisonians to wear a face mask.

Nearly every day since Gov. Tony Evers issued a ‘Safer at Home’ order on March 25 I’ve heard my mother struggle with her parents on the telephone over their “inability to follow the rules,” as she would say. “Did you really have to go to the post office when you have a mailbox at the end of your driveway” or “I think you can survive sacrificing the daily bakery trips for a few months” are tidbits from just a few of the conversations I get to look forward to overhearing each day. 

As time in social isolation drags on, I’ve observed a wide array of responses to social distancing orders like those from my parents and grandparents. After talking with Professor Dominique Broassard, the chair of the Department of Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, these differences aren’t due to age according to the data she helped gather on compliance and attitudes about social distancing during the COVID-19 outbreak, which showed little variation across age groups.

Instead, Brossard pointed to issues in the media coverage of the COVID-19 outbreak that could affect a person’s perception of the outbreak and social distancing orders, one of her main concerns being the constant coverage focused on the always-changing numbers and statistics rather than the things community members are doing to help each other get through the pandemic.

“Our projections are based on models, and that means that they’re not certain. They change every day … and the information is very negatively oriented,” Brossard said. “The media could try to focus on what’s happening in communities that are actually coming together to help each other: the stories of the college students that organized to buy groceries for the elderly, the retired healthcare workers that actually came back to offer their service to help the overcrowded local hospital and so on.” 

Coverage like this helps communities to not only think in terms of “doom and gloom.”It brings attention to the many connections a community has, according to Brossard. This type of media coverage helps build community resilience, or a community’s ability to withstand and overcome adversity, like a global pandemic.

Further, coverage that solely focuses on numbers makes the outbreak an issue that feels disconnected or irrelevant to peoples’ lives, an attitude that might hold a person back from taking CDC guidelines seriously. 

“Unless you have someone in your immediate circle that has died of coronavirus, it makes it something that isn’t very tangible. It doesn’t make it real,” Brossard said. “Another way to communicate about it would be to say how many lives you save: ‘Look, distancing yourself saves 100 lives. You may not see it, but you save 100 lives.’” 

Media coverage that uses metaphors to communicate how easily the virus spreads would also be more effective, Brossard said. For instance, comparing the virus to glitter, something that sticks to peoples’ hands and gets all over the place, would help people better understand why they need to wash their hands and keep their distance from others. 

From my own experience, understanding and actually practicing social distancing has seemed to be especially difficult for young, college-aged adults. For instance, my roommate Brooke Lindseth said that she saw several houses near the UW-Madison campus with up to 20 people gathering for “dartys” only a week after Evers issued the “Safer at Home” order.

Though Brossard’s data didn’t show that adolescents disobey social distancing orders any more than any other age group, Professor Chris Cascio, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UW-Madison who researches the neurocognitive mechanisms associated with social influence and persuasive health messages, said that adolescents, people who are 14 to 24 years old, tend to make riskier decisions and have greater sensitivity to social influence, which can make social isolation especially difficult.

The neural mechanisms involved in social pain have many overlaps with those associated with physical pain, and Cascio has used these similarities in his own research to show that those who experience more pain from social exclusion are more likely to engage in riskier behavior.

“What would I do if I was a freshman in college and this happened during my semester, how do I think I would’ve behaved? My first thought is that I would actually not stay in an apartment by myself. I would have immediately gathered with a bunch of friends and said, ‘Let’s all live in the biggest house that we can find, and let’s stay put but have some social connections so we’re not so isolated during this time period,’” Cascio said. “It’s just a guess, but that decision-making itself reflects more of an adolescent, riskier decision: more people in one house, if one person gets sick, you’re probably all getting sick.”

Some effective health messages that are targeted towards adolescents, like The Real Cost campaign which aims to eliminate teen smoking, have picked up on the fact that adolescent years are really important for social bonding, Cascio said. One of their commercials depicts a girl missing out on social interactions because she is too busy smoking.  

The coronavirus outbreak creates an interesting situation for health communicators because doing the right thing, social distancing, is causing social pain for all ages, Cascio said.

“One thing they could target is alternative forms of social bonding. So have people meet online with their friends and hang out how they normally would, but everyone’s just at their house,” Cascio said. “I think there’s other ways to socially bond at the moment, obviously mediated, but I think an advertisement that sort of highlights ways in which you can do that and not put yourself in jeopardy might be the key to maintaining social distance.”

Still, there are many people who are unable to maintain such distance due to socioeconomic factors that they cannot control. For people who cannot afford to stock up on a month’s worth of groceries, for example, trips to the grocery store will be more frequent. 

“I think making that a little bit more clear to people because I think people now are starting to get to that point where they’re getting anxiety from staying at home,” Cascio said. “They’re starting to wonder how long is it going to go on for and when the endpoint will be. They’re getting anxious.”

COVID-19 has changed everyones’ lives in some way. While it’s unclear when or if they will return to normal, many look to the news and media for guidance. 

“This is a big communication challenge,” Brossard said. “And I believe the media has a big role to play in helping us get through.”