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The Communicator

The Interview

Stephanie Madden

Stephanie Madden

Stephanie Madden is an assistant professor in the Department of Advertising/Public Relations. While her research falls “under the umbrella of public relations,” she says her work differs from some of her colleagues in the discipline.

Madden studies care. She defines “care” as how organizations help reduce harm. Through her research, Madden seeks to uncover abuses of power focusing on prevention. For example, her dissertation was related to sexual assault and sexual abuse, and how colleges and universities can use strategic communication to proactively combat campus sexual assault.

Madden led an interdisciplinary research project with colleagues Chris Skurka and Jessica Myrick from the Bellisario College and Kate Guastaferro from the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Penn State. The study was published in the Howard Journal of Communications and titled “When home is not safe: Media coverage and issue salience of child maltreatment during the COVID-19 pandemic.” The scholars surveyed respondents to see which messages were most effective in communicating the dangers and warning signs of child maltreatment, as well as calls to action.

How did this research collaboration come together?

It's kind of a fun story. Dr. Guastaferro cold emailed me in January 2020. It was right before everything changed. She also tweeted out to Dr. Skurka and Dr. Myrick in our college to see if there were partnership opportunities there as well. So, I responded to the email and all four of us got together. It was February 14, Valentine’s Day, I remember that because we all got along really well. We are all Midwestern millennial researchers and professors, transplants from the Midwest in Pennsylvania.

What was the first meeting like?

It was sort of a brainstorming meeting to see what possibilities might exist. We started first with an impact meeting with people who are doing this work on the ground and how we could use our general research knowledge to help with the amazing work that they're doing. It transitioned into the partnership through seeing a research call for a special issue of the Howard Journal of Communications on media and communication and COVID-19. I initially had the idea that this could be a great opportunity within communication and child maltreatment and child sexual abuse, which hadn’t really been studied that much. There has certainly been stuff from a crisis communication perspective, but there really wasn't a lot on prevention of these types of issues or how we can understand it.

Can you discuss the research idea that became the project you proposed to the call?

Children were no longer in classrooms at the time and most reports of child abuse and child maltreatment come from school employees and teachers. So, a lot of concern was that the numbers of reports were going to go down, which does not mean that incidents are going down. With fewer eyes and suspicious adults to report incidents, what was the messaging during COVID-19 that would help prevent child maltreatment?

Your study found differences in the messaging, and it depended on the type of media – social media, PSA or news coverage. It seemed that respondents seem to recall posts on social media more so than the other two. Any ideas why that might be the case?

It’s survey research, so this is our interpretation of the data. In general, it may have been somebody sharing a news article, but then maybe they added a personal comment or insight to it. In terms of recalling that, it may have more salience coming from someone the person knew. There was personal commentary or maybe something stuck in their memory, and they think, “I remember this person is really passionate about this issue or my teacher or friend posted something about this issue.”

That makes sense. So, the issue is hitting closer to home.

Knowing somebody and having that personal connection in that way, yes. Reading a story in a newspaper or seeing something on TV isn't going to have that sort of salience to you or that connection.

Based on these results, what would you tell communicators who work for child advocacy groups?

We were able to get some qualitative data and findings where respondents shared some comments into the survey. I'm a qualitative researcher so those are the parts that I was most involved in. Something we noticed was that a lot of the news articles didn't necessarily give insights into the science of child maltreatment. PSAs were more salient because they had a clear action message – for example, “If you suspect something call ChildLine.” These types of messages do a better job explaining what to look for and what to do.

That is the benefit of this partnership, because I've learned so much working with Dr. Guastaferro. For example, most child maltreatment is related to neglect. What we see in news stories – and what a lot of people recall in these surveys – was the more salacious or egregious instances of child abuse. But a lot of it is neglect and people may not know what that might look like. The idea to have organizations reiterating that this is a public health issue, and that child maltreatment is a public health issue. I think that's what we're really interested in. We combined it with COVID-19 because they are both public health issues. How can communities see these issues as their collective responsibility?

Can you expand on the importance of interdisciplinary research and what it meant to this project?

It opens us up to different issues. The topic of our study is not an issue that's been covered a lot in advertising or public relations or even media effects research. So, it really opens a lot of new important communication research on this topic. Combining that with a large amount of existing research on child maltreatment and child sexual abuse – the research that Dr. Guastaferro and the people with that as their primary research area – it exposes you to a number of different research outlets and a number of different research topics and possibilities. Even within our own college. Dr. Skurka, Dr. Myrick and I are all communication researchers broadly, but we do research very differently. I'm a qualitative researcher and they're both amazing quantitative researchers. That means that they're going to be doing a lot more with surveys or experiments and measuring things in different ways. All research has its limitations, but interdisciplinary research can capitalize on the different strings of messages and methods.

Listen to the full interview on COMMversations, the Bellisaro College’s podcast.