Stigmas are considered the leading—but least understood—barrier to health promotion. Research has revealed much about how people cope with health stigmas, but little attention has been paid to why and how some media stories about health provoke stigma-related outcomes. This is surprising, since one common claim in stigma theories is that stigmas are socialized; that is, they are communicated to and among community members (e.g., via media exposure and interpersonal conversations) so that the public becomes socialized to recognize stigmatized people and to enact the required devaluation. In this talk, I will describe a program of research focused on understanding the message features that promote stigma-related processes, such as accepting stigma beliefs, supporting community regulation to remove individuals from the community, and sharing the message with others. I will particularly focus on the last process: sharing. Understanding how particular message features, personality traits, and network positions predict intentions to share as well as patterns of distribution could provide critical insights into social diffusion and could inform efforts to increase resistance to future stigma messaging.
Rachel Smith, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Communication Arts & Sciences and Human Development & Family Studies, and an Investigator in the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics and in the Methodology Center at the Pennsylvania State University. Dr. Smith is a quantitative, social scientist who studies social influences in health. Her research centers on identifying message features and structural power associated with the uptake and spread of health beliefs and behaviors; as well as the effects of health perceptions on interaction patterns. A significant line of her research focuses on building and testing theories focusing on the relationships among health stigmas, communication, and infectious disease. She uses a variety of quantitative methods, including dyadic analysis and social network analysis, to investigate these issues. She has expertise in health message design and evaluation, and experience with the evaluation of funded programs nationally and internationally. She has made numerous presentations in scientific, technical, policy, and advocacy fora, and authored over 60 scientific, technical, and public health articles and chapters, the majority in peer-reviewed journals.