PULLMAN, Wash. — Three health communication researchers at Washington State University’s Edward R. Murrow School of Communication are hoping to break new ground in the war on teenage drinking and driving, an issue the National Academy of Sciences and Institute of Medicine calls a “largely invisible public health epidemic.”

The research by professors Bruce E. Pinkleton, Erica Weintraub Austin and Paul Bolls is made possible through a recent grant from the Alcoholic Beverage Medical Research Foundation, which describes itself as the largest, independent, non-profit foundation in North America. It is devoted solely to supporting research on the effects of alcohol to health and behavior, and on the prevention of alcohol-related problems.

With funding of approximately $40,000 a year for two years, Pinkleton, Austin and Bolls will explore the potential of an interactive compact disk to communicate anti-drinking and driving messages to young people. Their focus is on prevention message testing, development and evaluation.

“Often, health campaigns fail because of a lack of understanding of processes that must take place within an individual between message exposure and behavior change,” Bolls said.

“Our knowledge of these processes,” Austin said, “and how message characteristics affect them can guide the design of more effective health communication campaigns.”

The latest available figures from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration report 2,339 youth alcohol-related fatalities in the United States in 2000. A 2003 report released by the National Academy of Sciences shows 90 percent of 12th graders say it is easy to get their hands on a drink and in 2002, nearly half of all 12th graders polled said they drank alcohol at least once in the previous month. More than a fourth of all high school seniors reported having five or more drinks in the two-week period preceding the questionnaire.

The three WSU faculty members are considered leaders in the science-based development and scientific evaluation of media literacy interventions nationwide. Their research tests both conscious and subconscious aspects of message processing through a combination of psychophysiological self-report and behavior-based measures.

“A specific strength of our methodology is the ability to measure responses to messages during real-time exposure,” Pinkleton said. “Our approach allows us to provide cutting-edge, scientifically based knowledge that can be used to inform decisions to be made in the development and evaluation of health campaigns.”

The WSU team is the only unit of specialists to integrate theories and methodologies normally used in isolation. This approach acknowledges that some aspects of message processing are automatic and can be measured psychophysiologically. The team has also discovered that some aspects of message processing are controlled by the individual and depend on the individual’s personal and situational context, including their level of personal interest, logical and emotional responses to content and production characteristics, and their willingness to exert effort to process a message systematically. According to Austin, Pinkleton and Bolls, the ability to process messages systematically and logically is a learned skill that can be taught and is referred to as “media literacy.”

Previous research by members of the team has been in the national spotlight. Austin was an adviser to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy on its development of a position paper on media literacy.  She has consulted for a variety of organizations nationwide on media literacy programming, and she and Pinkleton are the primary evaluators for the Washington State Department of Health’s media literacy-based campaigns. For several years the two have served as consultants for the overall evaluation of the statewide tobacco prevention campaign.

Bolls directs the Laboratory for the Study of Communication, Emotion and Cognition in the Murrow School and is an expert in investigating how media message characteristics affect cognitive and emotional responses to messages. In his laboratory, faculty researchers and student assistants collect psychophysiological and self-report measures to assess the impact of different strategies (such as fear appeals and humor) for producing health messages.

Findings by the health communication team will eventually be used by the Benton-Franklin County “PLADD” group to develop a complete teen anti-drinking/driving CD-ROM.