Serving the public? A content analysis of COVID-19 public service announcements airing from March – December of 2020 in the U.S

Margaret E. Tait, Jake Abrahams, Robert Brehm, Laura Baum, Erika Franklin Fowler, Jeff Niederdeppe, Sarah E. Gollust

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


The objective of this research was to examine the health messages conveyed in public service announcements (PSAs) affiliated with the U.S. federal government response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. To do so, we conducted a content analysis of 132 federally-affiliated PSAs that were aired 170,820 times between March 12 and December 16, 2020. Using a quantitative coding instrument, we analyzed health behavioral guidance, messages about groups, people depicted, and other PSA features. We calculated frequencies of exposure to messages at the airing-level to account for the varying number of times each PSA was aired. Far more PSAs aired between March and June than between July and December. The most common health guidance was to stay at home (80.7%), practice social distancing (61.9%), and wash hands (54.5%); 36.1% of airings included guidance to wear masks. Few PSAs referenced group differences in risk of infection or transmission, nor did they reference scientific evidence or the future availability of vaccines. PSAs aired in 2020 missed opportunities to convey important information to the public and to center health equity in public communication.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number101971
JournalPreventive Medicine Reports
StatePublished - Oct 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Funding for this work was provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (IDs: 77645).

Funding Information:
We acknowledge generous support for this work from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (grant I.D. 77645). The authors have no additional financial or other relationships to disclose.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022 The Author(s)


  • COVID-19
  • Health equity
  • Public service announcements

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article


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