A new collaboration between the Social Science Research Center and the Department of Communication is researching communication science to better understand messages. The Message Laboratory is seeking to study messages and their effects, mainly in the fields of health and science communication.
With an ever-growing amount of information being presented to us in our daily lives, a new collaboration at the Social Science Research Center is seeking to better understand messages and their effects on recipients.
The Message Laboratory, created in the fall of 2016, is a collaboration between Mississippi State University’s Social Science Research Center and the Department of Communication. The lab is using multi-pronged approaches to carry out communication science research, mainly in the fields of health and science communication.
Dr. Holli Seitz, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication, created the lab with the intention of having a space that could be used to study messages and serve as a home for collaborative research. Understanding how messages affect those who receive them, as well as how those messages can be altered to change the effects is one of the lab’s main focal points.
“The initial idea was to take a message from development through implementation. As a message effects researcher, I thought about what the lab would need to encompass, from the initial stages of message development, all the way to the testing of the final message and its effects,” says Seitz.
The lab will use three different approaches to communication research: first, interviews and focus groups will be used for formative research; second, manual and automated text and content analysis will be used to look at large scale “big data” and social media; and third, online and in-person surveys and experimentation will be used to examine message effects.
As with many projects at the SSRC, The Message Laboratory is itself a joint effort; this one between the SSRC and the Department of Communication. Seitz explained that the lab is able to provide collaborative efforts on projects and research, adapting to the project and researcher needs.
“I see the space as a way to support and collaborate with projects in other domains,” Seitz explains. “The idea of the lab slowly changed over time to incorporate what others may need. We want it to be home to both primary research and support for collaborative research.”
Currently, she is working with a colleague in MSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine on how medicinal marijuana research findings are communicated to audiences. Seitz anticipates using the lab and experiments to find the best way to communicate these research findings.
Along with collaborations, she sees the lab as a chance to foster undergraduate research at the university by offering fellowships to undergraduate students in the Department of Communication. Seitz sees the potential to expose the department’s students to different types of research and skills.
“We want to show them what communication research means, what it can encompass,” she states. “We want them to be exposed to research careers and academic career paths, as well as practical application skills. If there is a topic they are passionate about pursuing, I want to be about to help them develop questions and research that topic.”
Marisa Laudadio, a sophomore majoring in political science and communication with an emphasis in public relations, joined the lab in January 2017. Laudadio assists in the lab with coding user-generated comments on news stories pertaining to mammography and breast cancer. This past summer, she worked with Dr. Seitz to develop her own research questions and interests, particularly around international adoption.
“My work this summer was around my personal interests in international adoption, specifically looking at social media and user-generated comments on those platforms to understand public opinion around the issue,” Laudadio explains. “What is the common discourse around the subject, are the perceptions accurate or are they actually misconceptions?”
Laudadio hopes to create a method of analysis that can be applied to any subject, allowing a researcher to collect data on a specific topic. That data could then be used to influence public policy or public discourse, directing the discussion to focus on the subjects that the public is talking about the most.
“The lab has completely helped change my goals since coming here, especially in showing me what social science is,” she says. “Getting to work with Dr. Seitz has shown me that you can use training in communication to do research and work with messaging to help people. I love it and now plan to do research combining policy and advocacy in the future.”
Dr. John Forde, head of the Department of Communication, also expressed interest in the laboratory’s chance to help student research.
“We are always excited in the Department of Communication when our students have the opportunity to learn through research projects and internships,” says Forde. “The Message Laboratory is a great example of this collaboration. Our partnership with the SSRC has been excellent, and we look forward to expanding that in years to come.”
One of the ongoing projects at The Message Laboratory is the study of messages around mammograms and breast cancer risk. After leaving the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Seitz went on to the University of Pennsylvania, where she completed her Doctorate in Philosophy in Communication. Her research focus and dissertation were on online news commentary’s effects on women’s decisions to get mammograms. Her interest in health communication and public health led her to also develop an interest in vaccine communication.
“Based on my public health background, I realized that vaccine communication was something that I was interested in and there was good research to be done around talking about vaccines and the science about them,” Seitz explains.
In July 2017, Seitz started a new year-long project researching the effects of misinformation about vaccines in social media. The project is funded through a Henry Family Fund for Research Excellence grant.
“Unfortunately, we know that once someone has learned a piece of information, it is hard to unlearn it, even when you find out that it is false,” says Seitz. “The long term goal of this research is how we can undo misinformation, but
first we must understand the effects that it has, as well as
what makes these message with misinformation more memorable.”
Seitz sees the future of the laboratory as bright. Now that the lab has a physical space at the SSRC, she believes that the lab has a chance to grow with more room to take on projects, students, and more interdisciplinary collaboration.
“I’m wanting to expand the physiological components to help understand that side of message effects research,” she says. “Also, as the Department of Communication grows, if there is a graduate program, I would love to have a graduate student in the lab to pursue their own research.”
Dr. Art Cosby, Director Emeritus of the SSRC, believes the lab will play an important role in understanding communications research.
“Dr. Seitz’s concept of a new laboratory that focuses on the science of science communications is an extremely innovative and exciting new development for us at the SSRC,” he explains. “It is clear that we do not adequately understand how people accept and utilize many of the most important contributions of science. With this lab we are establishing a marker that Mississippi State desires to be one of the leaders in addressing this important new arena of communications research.”
Seitz sees science communication becoming a bigger piece of the lab’s function. She explains that there is a need for more research around not only understanding how we communicate the findings of science research, but understanding how the public reacts to that communication and how it can be improved.
“Expanding to science communication is going to be a big part of my professional future. We believe it will be important in the future and something that we should begin to study here.”
Visit commlab.ssrc.msstate.edu for more information and updates from The Message Laboratory.