Texas Tech faculty members have received a grant to research the dissemination of COVID-19 misinformation among Hispanic populations.
The Hispanic population of Lubbock had the highest rates of infection during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. A group of researchers at Texas Tech University is trying to understand why.
Lucinda Holt, assistant professor of practice in the College of Media & Communication and assistant director of the Thomas Jay Harris Institute for Hispanic and International Communication (HIHIC), Kent Wilkinson, professor in the College of Media & Communication and director of the HIHIC, and Ryan Litsey, assistant dean for user-centered services for Texas Tech University Libraries, have been awarded a grant from the Knight Foundation to better understand this phenomenon.
According to the City of Lubbock, a disproportionate number of minorities in Lubbock were affected by the novel Coronavirus. Lubbock has a 35% Hispanic population, but in May of 2020, this population represented half of the city's COVID-19 cases. Meanwhile, the white population in Lubbock is roughly 53% but was only testing positive at a rate of 35%.
“There is a real lack of Spanish media in Lubbock and the surrounding communities,” Holt said. “We have two print publications, one television station and two broadcasting services in Spanish. When you compare that to the amount of information available in English in the same region, there is a large disparity.”
Holt also pointed out that half the Spanish media offered isn't local, but rather telecast from other cities and states.
And that's just traditional media.
“When you look at the resources English speakers had during the early stages of COVID-19, those same resources were not always available in Spanish,” Wilkinson said. “Thoughtful and persistent outreach from the government and other institutions with influence was often missing in minority populations.”
Even if the information was present, Litsey wonders if had the same effect.
“Institutional trust plays a big role,” Litsey said. “If you don't trust the institution giving you information, you're not going to pay attention to it.”
Due to missing Spanish information during the pivotal early days of the pandemic, the Hispanic population of Lubbock turned to social media for information.
“Or at least that's our guess,” Wilkinson said. “Latino populations tend to over-index in mobile and social use. Social media is a double-edged sword. It certainly can have positive or negative impact; we'd like to make sure it's used for good.”
But social media messaging isn't the only factor to consider.
“We're going to look at two things,” Holt said. “First, the lack of accurate Spanish language media, and second, the cultural and economic factors that put Latinos at the front of this issue. Church and family gatherings are significant cultural factors. Then, you must consider many members of this population are also front-line workers. When you add that up, it drives home the reason this population was so disproportionately and unfairly affected.”
Each researcher has a question they hope to see answered. As the lead investigator and longtime resident of Lubbock, Holt's goals hit close to home.
“As a West Texan and the daughter of former migrant workers, this project is especially important to me,” Holt said. “Growing up, I saw the struggle of those who were unable to speak and understand English. Fortunately, my parents were bilingual and knew the value of an education since they did not receive a formal one.”
Holt's father used the newspaper to teach himself and his family.
“Through publications like the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal and the Slatonite, my parents stayed informed and literate,” Holt said.
As she grew older, her father would use the newspaper to quiz Holt on current events.
“That's where my passion for journalism began,” Holt said.
However, as Holt's career took off, she realized there were many minorities in Lubbock who were not bilingual, and they struggled to stay informed. According to Holt, these residents rely on their children to translate for them, even though the child may not be old enough to understand the full scope of the messaging.
“What we are seeing in West Texas is a lack of representation,” Holt said. “As the Hispanic population continues to grow, access to Spanish-language communication is actually dwindling.”
Then you add the pandemic.
“What I want to learn from this research, coming from a media background, is whether we're serving this community correctly,” Holt said. “As journalists, we're supposed to help elevate the voices of the people we serve, so this really falls in line with that.”
Litsey's focus, however, is on information diffusion.
“How is information being diffused into this population?” Litsey asked. “Who does the target population talk to? How do they make decisions?
“The diffusion of information can be simple, but often times it ends up very complex,” Litsey said. “In this case, we want it to be as simple as possible. The idea is to follow the information from community leaders to the community members and see if the messaging actually worked.”
Wilkinson is approaching the research with similar questions, while also looking for academic findings that could aid people on an even larger scale.
“How can we identify the processes that people use to determine veracity of information?” Wilkinson said. “This is a perfect case study to examine that question. We want to contribute something academically so other communities can learn with us.”
But for all three researchers, there is one overarching motive – to serve communities across the South Plains.
The research itself will start by gathering the preliminary messaging that the Hispanic population received during the pandemic. The researchers will compile these messages through focus groups.
We'll then use that information to craft new messaging,” Holt said. “Just because we're in a lull doesn't mean this isn't important; COVID-19 is an ongoing situation.”
The message testing will focus on vaccines and other preventative methods. Through learning what worked and didn't work earlier in the pandemic, the researchers hope to find trusted community leaders, effective messaging and the right methods of dissemination.
“When we can identify what pathways that misinformation took in the early stages of the pandemic, we can hopefully find better ways to distribute information to this population in the here and now,” Wilkinson said.
At the end of the day, the researchers hope that Spanish-speaking individuals across the South Plains feel supported and able to identify and challenge misinformation.
“We want to serve people,” Litsey said. “Texas Tech is a large Tier-1 research university surrounded by rural communities. We have a certain responsibility in that sense. We can leverage research to aid the communities around us and as academics, when we can do that, we need to.”