Avoiding “message fatigue” when reporting on masks and COVID-19

Image courtesy of the ECRI.

Trying to engage audiences when writing about obtaining and wearing appropriate masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 can be challenging for journalists, according to new research.

That’s one of the conclusions that can be drawn from the paper, “COVID-19 Message Fatigue: How Does It Predict Preventive Behavioral Intentions and What Types of Information are People Tired of Hearing About?” The journal Health Communication published the paper online in January.

Mengfei Guan, Ph.D., of the University of Arkansas and co-authors sought to study the challenges of “message fatigue” in connection with the COVID pandemic. The public is approaching the two-year mark for intense media coverage of SARS-Cov-2. Using funds from the University of Arkansas, Guan and co-authors used a survey with 744 participants to try to tease out the parts of pandemic health messaging that have grown stale for many consumers.

About 21.9% of the participants said they were tired of hearing about the need to wear masks, suggesting there is more of a concern for message fatigue around this problem. That tops 18% response rate indicating “message fatigue” about social distancing, 10.08% response rate about washing hands, and 3.76% about vaccines.

Guan and co-authors suggested that people may be more receptive to messages that avoid “forceful and controlling language” but instead use stories. They also suggested that “appealing visuals to engage with the audience may be helpful.”

“Recent research has demonstrated the potential of using TikTok to raise awareness of and educate the public on COVID-19 due to their audience-centered interactive characteristics,” they wrote. “In short, health message designers should take advantage of various avenues in the burgeoning social media ecosystem to overcome message resistance.”

In her email exchange with AHCJ, Guan stressed the need to consider “a good attention-getter.”

“Visuals might also be helpful especially when people are consuming news with their mobile devices and when the media platforms allow infinite scroll (where they can easily skip anything that seems uninteresting),” Guan wrote. “Perhaps use language that is less didactic, arrange texts in charts that are easily digestible, embed interactive and responsive features, invite public figures/celebrities to speak up, etc.”

Guan cited as an example of this approach the “The Incredibles” health campaign launched by Disney in 2020. The campaign features some key characters from the movie “The Incredibles.” (Read more about this here, Disneyland launches COVID-19 health and safety campaign starring Incredibles superheroes, The Orange County Register, Dec. 15, 2020). Guan also noted how a local government authority in the U.K., the Shropshire Council, had teamed up with comic book artist Charlie Adlard to spread the word about basic precautions. (see Twitter post below)

In addition to these two campaigns highlighted by Guan, I’d like to recommend the ArteFato website from Brazil’s Aos Fatos (“to the facts” or more colloquially “just the facts” in English.) You don’t need to read Portuguese to admire the messages in many of the creative illustrations and comics posted on ArtFato. The website is meant to help educate people about COVID vaccines and precautions needed to prevent the spread of the virus. Below is an example posted on the Aos Fatos Instagram account.

ECRI Checklist

An image like the one shown above, showing a father trying to protect his young son, might be a good way to illustrate a story about guidance on buying masks.

The nonprofit patient-safety organization ECRI has published a new checklist that consumers can use to guide their decisions. With the omicron variant, N95 masks are the best choice, ECRI said.

“A good or legitimate KN95 or KF94 can perform comparably to an N95, providing significantly better respiratory protection than a surgical or cloth mask. And although N95 masks are harder to find and pricier than surgical masks, consumers can safely wear N95-type masks for up to a week (40 hours) before discarding them. To avoid the risk of transmission from handling a reused mask, always wash your hands after putting on or removing a mask and store it in a paper bag between uses.”

ECRI also urges consumers to check what the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) website says about masks. In the case of KN95 and KN94 masks, ECRI cautions consumers to steer clear of products where either the mask or its packaging states that it has approval from NIOSH or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

This “is a false statement since NIOSH and FDA do not regulate these foreign-made masks,” ECRI said.

Other tips from ECRI include:

  • Buying from big retail stores (e.g., CVS, Home Depot, Lowes, Walmart) when possible, to reduce the risk of counterfeit products.
  • Buying a shape that fits your face well without gaps and is comfortable. Trying several types may result in the best fit. People are likely to wear masks if they are comfortable.

ECRI’s checklist and its outreach to the press about it are part of an effort to help promote good masking habits even as many grow weary of pandemic precautions. In an email to AHCJ, Chris Lavanchy, engineering director for Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania-based ECRI stressed the need for continued mask wearing to prevent the spread of COVID-19, especially when people are in close proximity or indoors.

“While some people who are reluctant to wear masks might perceive their risk of getting seriously ill is low, they also need to understand that whenever a person gets infected, it gives the virus yet another opportunity to mutate and create other, possibly more contagious and virulent, variants,” Lavanchy said. “We all want the pandemic to end quickly, but that is only likely to happen if we can stop infections from occurring.”

Bara Vaida, AHCJ’s core topic leader for infectious diseases, also suggests bolstering stories with tips about buying masks with data from studies showing their effectiveness.  Stella Talic of Australia’s Monash University and co-authors, for example, reported in BMJ in November the results of a meta-analysis of research on anti-COVID protective measures, including handwashing, mask wearing, and physical distancing. This analysis includes an examination of six studies that looked at the effect of mask wearing on incidence of COVID-19. “Overall pooled analysis showed a 53% reduction in COVID-19 incidence (0.47, 0.29 to 0.75), although heterogeneity between studies was substantial (I2=84%),” Talic and co-authors wrote.

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