COVID-19, Communication, and College Life

COVID-19, Communication, and College Life

Group Members: Shannon Cruz, James Dillard, Lijiang Shen, Rachel Smith, & XiXi Tian

Department of Communication Arts & Sciences

Project: Tracking Exposure and Effect of the Penn State Mask Up or Pack Up Campaign

The purpose of this project was intended to (a) monitor COVID-related safety behaviors, such as masking, distancing, and hand-washing, during fall semester, (b) provide near-real time reports on those behaviors, and to (c) understand the effects of the Mask Up or Pack Up campaign on PSU students living on or off-campus in Centre County. The data in the report were gathered from University Park undergraduates (N = 705) who took part in a rolling cross-sectional survey that was administered weekly from September 17 to November 11, 2020. A copy of the full report is available upon request.


1. The campaign appeared to be successful at reaching a very large proportion of the student body. But, a segment of the sample (5% to 15%) reported no exposure to the campaign. This result was stable over the period of study.

2. Between 40% and 80% of respondents perceived the campaign to be effective at increasing COVID-related safety behaviors for themselves and others. However, these judgments showed no association with campaign exposure and inconsistent association with self-reports of behaviors.

3. Safety behaviors: Self-reported masking and hygiene behaviors (e.g., handwashing, avoiding touching face) were high and stable across the eight-week period, whereas distancing was considerably lower. Frequency of campaign exposure via official PSU sources positively predicted hygiene behaviors, but not distancing or masking.

4. Safety behaviors were significantly lower among students who are (1) younger, (2) white, (3) male, (4) members of Greek letter organizations, and (5) living off campus.

5. To the extent that respondents perceived the campaign to be pressuring them, they reported lower levels of all three safety behaviors.

6. Observing local others wearing a mask improperly or not at all was associated with lower frequency of masking and distancing among respondents themselves. Similarly, higher levels of exposure to local others who communicated a disdain for masking was associated with lower levels of distancing, masking, and hygiene behaviors.


1. Resources should be focused on the portions of the student body that reported the highest levels of risky behavior (see #4 above).

2. Messages should avoid locutions that imply pressure.

3. Messages should take advantage of politically conservative public figures who have changed their position on the severity of COVID-19 and the value of safety behaviors (e.g., Chris Christie).

4. Circumstances in the U.S. may be sufficiently different in 2021 that efforts to debunk misinformation about COVID-19 could be more successful than in 2020. Methods for identifying and countering false beliefs that lead to risky behaviors should be evaluated.

5. Consideration should be given to methods for leveraging stories of the impact of COVID-19 on people of college age.

Project: Persuasive Messages, Social Norms, and Reactance: A Study of Masking Behavior During a COVID-19 Campus Health Campaign

Efforts by universities to reduce the spread of COVID-19 often include health campaigns intended to encourage students to wear masks. While well-intended, these efforts have the potential to produce counter-persuasion (i.e., to decrease masking) if they are seen as threatening individuals’ perceived right to choose. In a rolling cross-sectional study of the Penn State Mask Up or Pack Up campaign (N = 681), it was found that the presence of the campaign did instigate a form of resistance known as reactance and that reactance was negatively correlated with the masking behavior of respondents. Masking was also diminished by the frequency with which respondents observed others not wearing a mask (descriptive norm) and the frequency with which respondents observed others expressing disdain for masking (anti-masking injunctive norm). Most of these findings were magnified among students who identified as politically conservative. There was no evidence that frequency of seeing others speak in favor of masks (pro-masking injunctive norm) produced an increase in masking. The results provide valuable theoretical insights into the causes of reactance and empirical evidence of the risks associated with student-oriented COVID-safety campaigns.

A copy of the full report is available upon request.

Project: Using Semantic Network Analysis to Explore Sensemaking about COVID-19

Leads: Shannon Cruz & Xun Zhu (University of North Dakota)

In the face of unexpected and novel events, people engage in sensemaking as a way to comprehend and explain what is happening. Few recent events have provided as powerful an example of this as the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 is a novel virus with relatively novel recommendations (e.g., making and wearing masks) and mandates (e.g., closed stores). The science, practice, and policies around COVID-19 have also changed throughout the pandemic, which has now lasted over a year. As a result, people have been left struggling to make sense of what is happening in their local communities, countries, and around the world, creating a unique context in which to study sensemaking. College students are no exception, as these dynamic events have impacted how they navigate campus and community life. Different segments of the general public and student body—particularly those with different political ideologies—have also reacted to the pandemic in very differently ways, which may in part be due to differences in how they have made sense of what is happening and what they should do. With these points in mind, the goal of this project is to employ semantic network analysis to investigate sensemaking among liberal, moderate, and conservative Penn State students over the course of fall semester in 2020. This approach will build on existing research on partisan perceptions of COVID-19, offering insights into how and why sensemaking differs for different groups.

Project: The Impact of Information Source on Campaign Fatigue and Attention During a COVID-19 Campus Health Campaign

Exposure and attention are prerequisites for campaigns to have an impact on the audience. The Mask Up or Pack Up campaign launched months after the pandemic outbreak was faced with an already fatigued and stressed out audience. In addition to the official campaign source, audience members were also exposed to campaign messages and related information on social media and through interpersonal communication. In a rolling cross-sectional study of the Penn State Mask Up Pack Up campaign (N = 681), it was found that the receivers’ fatigue continued to rise and their attention decreased as the campaign unfolded over an eight-week period. Exposure from the official source increased both attention to the campaign and campaign fatigue. Interpersonal communication about the campaign enhanced attention to the campaign without increasing fatigue. Conservative individuals experienced higher fatigue and paid less attention to the campaign. Attention to the campaign had a small and positive effect on safety behaviors; campaign fatigue had a small and negative effect on safety behaviors, but it substantially reduced attention. These results suggested that the intended effect of the campaign was probably cancelled out due to the fatigue it induced among the audience, but its spillover to communication in interpersonal channels worked. Encouraging campaign-related interpersonal communication might be as equally important as targeting behavior advocacy for campaigns, especially when the audience was already fatigued in a competitive media environment.