Education Wellness

Study Explores Uncertainty Around COVID-19

WCU Covid Study

By Emma Castleberry

An ongoing study is seeking to learn how people seek information and manage uncertainty related to the COVID-19 virus. Researchers involved in the study include Scott Eldredge, associate professor of communication at Western Carolina University; Betsy Dalton, assistant professor of communication studies at Middle Tennessee State University; Laura Miller, associate professor of communication studies at the University of Tennessee; and Ivanka Pjesivac, associate professor of journalism at the University of Georgia. Eldredge, Pjesivac and Dalton met in a PhD program at the University of Tennessee in 2010 where Miller was their professor and advisor. “We have all studied uncertainty as a concept that drives our communication behaviors,” says Eldredge. “So this was a great time, as we are in the midst of all this uncertainty around COVID-19, to really get people as they’re experiencing it.”

Currently, the team has completed about 30 hour-long interviews via Zoom with people from Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Florida. Most of the initial subjects were over 55, but there has been a recent uptick in interviewees in their 20s and 30s. “We’re getting a lot of a certain type of person demographically, but also ideologically,” says Dalton. “People are opting into the study who have been conservative in their COVID-related behavior.”

One of the trends the team has noticed is that young families have some appreciation for the increased time at home. “Being in the sheltered home place has allowed them to get back to that ideal family life, the whole reason they decided to do it in the first place—togetherness,” says Eldredge. On the flip side, there are control issues cropping up in groups that live together. “Families are experiencing a renewed closeness,” says Dalton, “but there is this new tension as we start to go back into the world. We can’t control everything our housemates or loved ones are doing and that causes uncertainty and stress.”

Additionally, the team has noticed that many subjects are relying heavily on local news to get information about COVID-19. “They would generally start with the CDC, maybe the WHO and the nightly national news, but when it came down to understanding the information that they needed, it’s local sources,” says Eldredge. Dalton attributes this somewhat to the sensationalism of big, national news. “It’s pulling us in a lot of different directions constantly, and that’s tiring,” she says.

While the team was willing to share some preliminary thoughts on the study, it is still very much a work in progress. “When you do this type of research, where you’re seeking depth with long interviews rather than breadth, you’re finished when you’re not hearing anything new,” says Dalton. “When researchers start to see repeating patterns in the information, it’s called reaching saturation. But right now, I feel like I hear something new with every new interview.”

It might be a long while before the results of the study are compiled into clear articles, in part because the pandemic itself is still ongoing. “Not a single person alive is not impacted by this and you can’t say that about a lot of other health crises, which are often localized or personalized,” says Miller. “One of the goals of studies like this is to explain behavior and predict future behavior. In the event that something like this—even on a smaller scale—happens in the future, hopefully we can apply some of this data.”

For more information about the study, email Eldredge at saeldredge@wcu.edu.

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