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Faith-based groups, public health more in sync on COVID-19 than some reports suggest
Ellen Idler and John Bernau

Ellen Idler invited John Bernau to assist with computational text analysis for the study (shown in 2018).

New research from a team of Emory sociologists shows that American religious groups of all faiths were far more supportive of public health measures designed to end the pandemic than media coverage initially suggested.

The analysis covered only the first six months of the pandemic and examined just one large media outlet. Still, by challenging the narrative of a more contentious relationship between the faithful and protocols designed to keep communities safe, the research could have implications for the ongoing battle to promote widespread vaccination and curb the COVID-19 virus, says Ellen Idler, the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Sociology who led the study.

“My hope is that we can reframe the conversation,” Idler says. “Faith-based organizations are so attuned to the needs of their own communities and so trusted, and trust is the piece people have to have when being asked to act.”

Idler, who is affiliate faculty at Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health, pursued the research after noticing that national news coverage portraying religious groups as focused on individual rights didn’t square with her experience of seeing clergy focused on sharing resources and aiding the community. 

She paired with John Bernau and Dimitrios Zaras, two recent Emory sociology PhDs with experience in computational text analysis, to dig deeper into that disconnect.

The team started by collecting 634 New York Times stories published between Jan. 1 and June 30, 2020, that contained religious and pandemic-related terms. They also gathered 63 COVID-19 statements from faith-based organization websites and seven different guidance reports specifically for faith groups released by public health organizations during that time.

Dimitrios Zaras

Dimitrios Zaras focused on a sentiment analysis as part of the team’s research.

Zaras then focused on a sentiment analysis, examining every word in the documents for negative and positive values. His work showed religious groups’ statements were positive throughout the period — with the theme of caring for others and protecting the vulnerable being consistent in each statement. He also found that newspaper coverage, while initially negative, grew more positive over time to reflect that attitude. 

“The media of course looks more for stories that make an impression on their readers, but what’s intriguing to me is that the New York Times did change their approach to more accurately reflect the data,” Zaras says.

Bernau, the director of digital scholarship at Emory’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion, found a similar overlap between religious groups and public health in his topic modeling, which analyzed the message content.

Of the 30 most prevalent topics found across all sources, the first and second most frequently occurring were the same for faith groups and public health statements.

Put another way, official religious group statements showed significant uptake of the public health messaging.

“Their overarching similarity encourages a more nuanced understanding of how faith-based organizations responded to the pandemic,” Bernau says.

A graph showing that faith-based groups amplified public health messages in the early days of the pandemic

Emory sociologists discovered that faith groups amplified public health messages in the early days of the pandemic, contrary to what media coverage initially suggested.

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