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Federally-affiliated Public Service Announcements (PSAs) During the Early Period of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Our team, led by Margaret Tait, recently published the results of a study exploring public service announcements (PSAs) sponsored by the federal government and airing on TV during the early months of the pandemic, from March through December of 2020. The study is available open access in Preventive Medicine Reports

Using methods applied in other COMMHSP work, our team identified elements of PSA content with implications for health equity. These included messages about the populations at greater risk of transmission or infection from COVID-19 as well as discussion about the development of or possibility for a vaccine. We also captured the health guidance included in PSAs, different resources that were mentioned, and the presence of select individuals who may be perceived as trusted sources of information. 

Our analysis revealed that health equity was not centered in federally-affiliated PSAs about COVID during this time period. Few PSAs talked about groups at risk of transmission or infection, and we did not identify a single PSA that talked about the COVID vaccine (although the time period of the study preceded the availability of vaccines, they were in development). The most common health guidance included in PSAs was to stay at home and this, too, has equity implications: people of color and those with less resources who are unable to work remotely have been disproportionately burdened by COVID. Our analysis also speaks to the political and contentious nature of COVID-19 mitigation. Appeals for individuals to wear a mask were present in just over a third of messages in our sample. Further, we observed a decline in PSA volume over time, despite increases in the number of infections and deaths due to COVID. 

Ideally, PSAs help to shape public understanding of a health issue and to motivate a policy response proportionate to need. Our analysis suggests that the opportunity was missed with PSAs airing during the early period of the pandemic to use strategic communication to advance public understanding of the virus and its effects, and to further equitable health and social policy.

This study was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (Grant no. 77645). The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the foundation.

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