Academic journal article Theory in Action

Designing Health Messages to Promote Social Change

Academic journal article Theory in Action

Designing Health Messages to Promote Social Change

Article excerpt


The following article explores course design of Health Communication, a course taught in an undergraduate liberal arts college, satisfying both communication major and public health minor course requirements. The field of health communication generally explores communication processes that inform and influence our health and healthcare. Topics include communication between providers and patients, in social and cultural communities, in health organizations and systems, and in health promotion and media (see Corcoran, 2007; du Pre, 2000; Geist-Martin, Ray, & Sharf, 2003; Thompson, Dorsey, Miller, & Parrot, 2003). Health Communication curriculum focuses specifically on the relationship between health and media.

Herein, I articulate how and why Health Communication integrates theoretical, methodological, and pedagogical approaches from communication and public health to evoke individual and social change in health related knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors among college students. This article is organized around three central areas of scholarship - media systems and health related content, health promotion, and pedagogy and curriculum design - to demonstrate how the course achieves active learning and social change within the college community through the design and implementation of a public information campaign.

Central to the organization of health communication is its (re)position with social justice principles. Rodriguez (2006) explains that communication is seen as a "transmission phenomenon involving the creating, transferring, sharing, giving, expressing, or conveying of messages and meanings" (p. 22). Corcoran (2007) states that problems associated with communication theories in health communication include a reductionist nature on individual change, insofar that they do not contemplate how behavior is influenced by wider structural, political, and environmental factors. Accordingly, social justice concerns are often absent from mainstream communication theories, inquiries, and pedagogies used to understand the communication of health.

Previous scholars offer insight into the longstanding role of communication scholars in advancing social justice through teaching pedagogies, theories, research and activism (see also Artz, 2006; Frey, 2006; Rodriguez, 2006; Swartz, 2006; Wood, 1996). Essential in this scholarship is that communication is about the study of power, democracy, and hegemony in society. Health Communication engages students in the practice of what Mills (1959) calls the sociological imagination, which links individual responsibility with social progress. Mills (1959) contends that we must understand the interplay of individual and society, and how history, social structures, and sociological patterns influence personal experiences.

Health Communication considers how the academe becomes a resource for advancing this sociological imagination. Interconnected is a concern that students recognize and understand power struggles that exist within society and impact their own lives (Swartz, 2006). In Health Communication students investigate through media criticism and health promotion the extent that the media system encourages or discourages social justice and participatory democracy. Social justice pedagogies engage students directly in communication activism; with the goal to promote personal and public health, social change, and media reform (Frey, 2006). Social justice is defined as "the engagement with and advocacy for those in our society who are economically, socially, politically, and/or culturally underresourced" (Frey, Pearce, Pollack, Artz, & Murphy, 1996, p. 110). The following section explains how students meet this goal through assessing the information value of healthrelated media messages and reconstituting a health agenda that reflects these democratic aspirations for U.S. media content.


In Health Communication, students critically examine the agenda setting function of media, to deduce the extent that it may perpetuate the status quo and hierarchies of power. …

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