PULLMAN, Wash.- Previous research by faculty members at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University and the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communication at Penn State University found that celebrity disclosures of illness can be associated with increased information-seeking, screening behaviors or other potential health behavior changes.

Actor Tom Hanks became a celebrity face of the COVID-19 pandemic when he announced in early March that he and his wife, Rita Wilson, tested positive for the virus. The announcement came as Americans were trying to understand the novel coronavirus and its potential impacts. Although no direct correlation between Hanks’ illness disclosure and Americans’ information-seeking related to COVID-19 has been made, there is a connection in other cases involving celebrity deaths or illness disclosures.

Jessica Willoughby, an assistant professor at Murrow College, and Jessica Gall Myrick, an associate professor at Penn State University, have collaborated on projects related to the impact of celebrity illness disclosure and diagnoses on information seeking and public health outcomes. In April 2019, the Journal of Health Communication published their study The Role of Media-Induced Nostalgia after a Celebrity Death in Shaping Audiences’ Social Sharing and Prosocial Behavior.

“While we can’t be sure of how peoples’ behaviors may change in this unprecedented time, typically when a person feels similar to a public figure or identifies with them, they may be influenced by health-related disclosures and information provided,” said Willoughby.

In their study, Willoughby and Myrick surveyed 489 people who had heard news of Mary Tyler Moore’s death in 2017. Of these participants, most had seen an episode of a show she starred in, such as The Dick Van Dyke Show or The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The participants completed a survey answering questions on how they felt about her passing, whether they digitally shared stories about the news, and how they identified with Mary Tyler Moore as a person. Study participants also reported on their personal connections to diabetes, which was a cause that Moore publicly supported and advocated for.

The study results show that shortly after the actress died, media exposure to news of her death was associated with nostalgia. These feelings of nostalgia were associated with increased social sharing of information, such as sharing news articles on social media or texting a news story about it to another person. They also found that celebrity deaths and related media exposure can foster social bonding among people.

Attention to Moore’s death was also associated with prosocial behaviors, such as self-reported donations to a diabetes-associated cause for which Moore advocated. Moore’s general popularity and positive image in society, coupled with a personal connection to diabetes, may be the cause of the reported prosocial behavior. This suggests that people may be more likely to donate money and time to a celebrity’s charitable cause when they feel a deep attachment to the celebrity or the illness itself.

Although this research from Myrick and Willoughby dates back to last year, it can guide those who want to use current events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, to promote health-related causes and prosocial behaviors.

Edward R. Murrow College of Communication faculty members have several active projects focused on COVID-19 underway, including surveys, experiments, social network analyses, content analyses, semi-structured in-depth interviews, and automated scraping of online content. Among the projects, faculty members explore the intersection of COVID-19 with media literacy, racism/Xenophobia, and organizational resilience. Faculty members are also exploring how best to design health promotion messages.