Study Offers Insights for Communicating About Wildlife, Zoonotic Disease Amid COVID-19

Wildlife management can play a role in the spread of zoonotic disease..

A new study from North Carolina State University found that certain types of messages could influence how people perceive information about the spread of diseases from wildlife to humans.

The researchers say the findings, published in the journal Frontiers in Communication, could help scientists, policymakers and others more effectively communicate with diverse audiences about zoonotic diseases and the role of wildlife management in preventing them from spreading to people. Zoonotic diseases are diseases that originate in wildlife and become infectious to people.

“If we want to prevent and mitigate the next giant zoonotic disease, we need people to recognize these diseases can emerge from their interactions with wildlife,” said study co-author Nils Peterson, professor of forestry and environmental resources at NC State. “We have to do better with how we interact with wildlife. We also have to do better in terms of our communication, so people recognize the root of the problem. We need to learn how to communicate with people about zoonotic diseases and wildlife trade across partisan divides.”

In the study, researchers surveyed 1,554 people across the United States to understand whether they would see greater acceptance of scientific information about zoonotic diseases – specifically in regard to the potential role of wildlife trade in the origin and spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 – depending on how they structured their messaging. Scientists from the World Health Organization concluded in a report on the origins of COVID-19 earlier this year that evidence points to a likely animal origin. One group of scientists has called for more clarity.

In their experiment, study participants were asked to read one of three articles. One article used a “technocratic” frame that emphasized the use of technology and human ingenuity to address diseases from wildlife, such as using monitoring and culling of animals with diseases. This frame was designed to appeal to people with an “individualistic” worldview. A second article had a “regulatory frame” that emphasized using land conservation to create wildlife refuges as a solution. This frame was designed to appeal to people with a “communitarian” view. The third article was designed as a control, and was intended to be neutral.  

Researchers then asked all of the participants to read part of an article that researchers wrote about COVID-19 and the potential role of wildlife trade in its origin and spread, and asked them about their perceived validity of the information. Researchers also surveyed participants about their trust in science overall, and belief in COVID-19’s wildlife origin.

“Past research suggests people process and filter information through their cultural lens, or based on how they think the society should function,” said the study’s lead author Justin Beall, a graduate student in parks, recreation and tourism management at NC State. “We wanted to know, in the domain of zoonotic disease management, what are the solutions for managing diseases that might align with different cultural values in the United States? Would using those perspectives impact how people accepted scientific information about the wildlife origin of COVID-19?”

Researchers found that people who identified as liberal reported higher perceived risk on average from COVID-19. They were also more likely to accept evidence for the wildlife origin of COVID-19 and support restrictions on wildlife trade.

When researchers considered the link between message frames and participants’ acceptance of the information about COVID-19 and the potential role of wildlife trade in its origin and spread, they found liberals who received the technocratic framing were significantly less likely to find the information valid, while conservatives were slightly more likely to find it valid. They didn’t see any statistically significant relationship between the “regulatory” framing and participants’ acceptance of the information.

“The findings show us that cultural views are relevant for communicating about wildlife disease,” Beall said. “We found that the technocratic viewpoint might be more polarizing.”

That suggests that for communicating to a diverse public audience about zoonotic disease and wildlife trade, communicators should avoid using the technocratic frame. However, when communicators are speaking to a conservative audience, they could consider using the technocratic frame to increase acceptance.

Researchers underscored the importance of the findings for conveying the idea that the health of humans, wildlife and the environment are connected.

“We all exist in this giant ecosystem, and disease is part of it,” said study co-author Lincoln Larson, associate professor of parks, recreation and tourism management at NC State. “If we’re talking about the health of humans, we’re talking about the health of wildlife and ecosystems simultaneously. It’s critical to develop effective communication strategies that resonate with ideologically diverse audiences and lead to bipartisan support and action.”

“Improving communication and framing around zoonotic disease could help to prevent the next global pandemic, and that’s a message everyone can get behind,” he added.

The study, “Cultural cognition and ideological framing influence about zoonotic disease in the era of COVID-19,” was published online in Frontiers in Communication on May 31, 2021. In addition to Beall, Larson and Peterson, other authors included William R. Casola, Wylie A. Carr, Erin Seekamp, Kathryn T. Stevenson and Steven B. Jackson. The work was supported by grant No. G15AP00162 from the U.S. Geological Survey Southeast Climate Adaptation Science Center, which is managed by the USGS National Climate Adaptation Science Center.


Note to editors: The abstract follows.

“Cultural cognition and ideological framing influence about zoonotic disease in the era of COVID-19”

Authors: Justin M. Beall, William R. Casola, M. Nils Peterson, Lincoln R. Larson, Wylie A. Carr, Erin Seekamp, Kathryn T. Stevenson, Steven B. Jackson.

Published online in Frontiers in Communication on May 31, 2021.

DOI: 10.3389/fcomm.2021.645692

Abstract: The efficacy of science communication can be influenced by the cultural values and political ideologies (i.e., cultural cognitions) of target audiences, yet message framing rarely accounts for these cognitive factors. To explore the effects of message framing tailored to specific audiences, we investigated relationships between political ideology and perceptions about the zoonotic origins of the COVID-19 pandemic using a nationally-representative Qualtrics XM panel (n=1554) during August 2020. First, we examined differences in attitudes towards science (in general) and COVID-19 (specifically) based on political ideology. We found that, compared to conservatives, and moderates, liberals trusted science more, were less skeptical of science, perceived greater risk from COVID-19, were more likely to believe in a wildlife origin of COVID-19, and were more likely to support restrictions on wildlife trade. Second, we examined the influence of cultural framing on the perceived validity of science related to COVID-19. Respondents were randomly assigned to one of three treatment groups: (1) a technocratic framing that highlighted feats of human ingenuity to overcome zoonoses; (2) a regulatory framing that highlighted regulations and expansions of protected areas for wildlife as a means to prevent zoonoses, and (3) a control article about traffic lights with no cultural framing. After reading the initial framing article, all three groups read the same fictional, yet factually accurate, ‘Nature Science study’ generated by the authors. An OLS regression model revealed a significant interaction between the technocratic framing and political ideology. Relative to the control group, the technocratic framing slightly increased perceived validity of the Nature Science study for conservatives, significantly lowered perceived validity for liberals, and had no impact on moderates. We did not detect any significant interaction between framing and political ideology for the regulatory framing. Findings of this study highlight the need to account for cultural cognitions when communicating about COVID-19 and other zoonotic diseases. Communication strategies carefully designed to resonate with ideologically diverse audiences may ultimately lead to bipartisan support for actions required to promote “One Health” approaches that reduce the impacts of zoonoses on human and environmental health.