Community Journalism Journal Volume 10

“COVID guidelines? Or are we just wingin’ it?”: An analysis of pandemic-related public health content posted to location-based digital spaces


This is a mixed-method content analysis of posts made to geographically based community pages on the social link aggregation site Reddit. It examines the posts through the lens of the United States Federal Communication Commission’s identified community informational needs as defined by Friedland et al. (2012). Previous research on the topic found that the general information posted to those pages often fulfilled the community-based information needs, although not in a pure one-to-one analog for the traditional, centralized community news outlet. One of the shortcomings was a lack of public health information. However, no study has since been conducted on this content since the COVID-19 pandemic that has gripped most of the world since early 2020. This study is a continuation of that line of research, examining if the content posted about COVID-19, masking, social distancing, and vaccinations to geographically based digital spaces has the potential to alleviate some of the information-flow problems caused by the collapse of traditional community journalism infrastructure in the U.S.


This study was a mixed-method content analysis of posts made to 13 location-based digital communities on the social link aggregation website Reddit. This study examined how users used those subreddits to share community-based public health information related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The content was examined along the lines of the U.S. Federal Communication Commission’s identified community informational needs. Of those needs, one is the need for health-based information, divided up into these sub-categories: access to information about basic public health; the availability, quality, and cost of local health care; information on health-based programs and services; timely information in accessible language on the spread of disease and vaccination; and timely access to information about local health campaigns and intervention (Friedland et al., 2012).

This research follows in the footsteps of previous work suggesting Reddit’s geographically based subreddits contain the potential to alleviate some of the informational losses caused by the growing news desert problem (Riley & Cowart, 2021). As of April 2024, Reddit is listed by Similarweb as being the 10th-most-visited website by traffic in the United States (Top Websites Ranking, 2024). Previous research on Reddit found that the originally generated content posted to geographically based subreddits carries many of the same attributes as the eight community informational needs noted by the FCC (Friedland et al., 2012).

The potential was at its highest level for emergency or breaking-news based information, civic-based political information, and event-based community calendar information, all of which mimic the content that would otherwise exist in traditionally structured community newspapers and outlets (Riley & Cowart, 2021). However, not all of the eight community-based information needs were highly represented. Health-based information was one of the least-present informational areas identified in Riley & Cowart’s (2021) results, with only 19 coded posts out of a total sample of 600.

When health-based information was found in the data, it tended to take the shape of reminders of free health clinics or inquiries about recommendations for local physicians and dentists, but rarely did the results indicate a deeper presence of community health-based information. In terms of more traditional, centralized news production, there was little in the way of non-event based health information sharing. In terms of the special dynamics social media can bring to the table, there was very little health-based information-seeking behavior.

However, the results of that study carried a very serious limitation: the work was completed using data collected from a period of time that ended mere weeks before the coronavirus pandemic that would eventually kill more than 1 million Americans and disrupt the entire world entered the mass consciousness of most citizens in the United States. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had not issued a public health declaration for municipalities to brace for community spread until Feb. 25, 2020 (CDC Media Telebriefing, 2020).

The World Health Organization had not declared COVID-19 an official pandemic until March 11 (WHO Director-General’s opening remarks, 2020). Although we now know the first death on U.S. soil from the virus happened on February 6, 2020, in Santa Clara, California (Allday & Gafni, 2020), that information was not made public until April 24, 2020, two months after data collection for Riley & Cowart’s (2021) study ended. At the time, the then-understood first death from the virus came on Feb. 28, 2020, in a nursing home in Washington State (Acevedo & Burke, 2020). This study explored Riley & Cowart’s (2021) serious limitation by focusing specifically on posts concerning the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent control measures of masking, social distancing, and vaccinations to see if and how the subreddits could fulfill the public-health-based informational needs noted by the FCC (Friedland et al., 2012).

The results of this study indicate that many of the geographically based subreddits were used to equally share public health information, as well as request public health information. Requests for businesses and locations that followed masking and social-distancing protocols were the most-common information requested, and warnings about businesses and locations that did not follow masking and social-distancing protocols were the second-most volunteered form of information. The most common form of volunteered information was regular updates on the number of positive cases in the community; however that came with a compelling twist. The majority of those posts were made by “bots,” or computer scripts that would grab the case number information from the Georgia Department of Public Health and post it on the subreddit at a regular interval. That action, while simple, demonstrates that the subreddits began to figure out how to create their own decentralized forms of regularly updated community health information.

The results also demonstrated an active push-and-pull between users requesting information and volunteering information, which helps expand our understanding of the applicability of interactive components of Uses & Gratifications Theory, namely aspects of sociality as a guiding motivator for interaction in digital spaces.

As more community news outlets close, and as community news deserts in the United States continue to expand, it is important for scholarly research on community journalism to examine not just the impacts of community news closure, but also what is coming after to fill the void as humans continue to seek answers to questions related to public health – such as which local businesses are following safety protocols during a viral pandemic. Aside from the obvious benefit that proper information flow for public health information brings to a community, community reporting on outbreaks has been used by epidemiologists for decades to track and analyze community responses to disease spread (Branswell, 2018).


Literature Review

Uses & Gratification Theory

This study utilized Uses & Gratification Theory as its foundational theoretical framework. At its most basic, the audience-centered theory presupposes that people make active decisions in their mass-media consumption habits in order to satisfy specific internal needs (Blumler & Katz, 1974; Ruggiero, 2000).

Modern work examining the overlap of digital communities and Uses & Gratifications Theory has suggested that there are five active motivations specific to activity in digital spaces, including social media: Sociality and affection, the need to express negative feelings for catharsis, recognition of opinion or belief, entertainment, and cognitive needs (Leung, 2013; Menon, 2022). This study recognizes that the very nature of Reddit as a digital space means the way people interact with it as a platform will be fundamentally different from the ways they interact with a printed community newspaper, or even that community newspaper’s website, as there is a potentially a higher level for participatory interaction and two-way sharing of information. While there is the capacity for interaction with a community newspaper or community news website in the form of guest columns, letters-to-the-editor, and comment sections, the information flow is much more one sided. On Reddit, there is much more potential for what Lowrey (2012) referred to in community news as a “Listening and Changing Dimension,” (pg. 96, in Reader, 2012), wherein more voices are allowed to have a say. In turn, that increases the bond between the “community” and the people gathering and presenting the information. In the case of Reddit, those are the same groups, without a delineated difference between “community journalist” and “community member.”

There are also noted overlaps in the specific uses of community journalism and the gratification of those in the community, and some researchers have found that there are distinctly different patterns of consumption and assumptions of trustworthiness behind community news when it shifts into an online platform (Gulyas, O’Hara & Eilenberg, 2019). Echoing other work on Uses & Gratification Theory in digital spaces, Obot (2013) found there were consistencies of audience expectation within the gratification of independence in the reporting, quality of the reporting, and reach of the message.

Community Journalism

Even the scholars whose entire research agenda is “community journalism” have struggled at times to give it a simple, short working definition in a way that clearly differentiates it from “local journalism” or other vague possible titles for packaged information that relies heavily on proximity as the primary element of newsworthiness (Reader, 2012). Yet there is a sense of understanding about what the term actually means: news that has a “narrower closeness” (pg. 15) to the audience it serves. That closeness can come in the form of geographic closeness, as in a community newspaper publishing news articles about issues that are newsworthy to the smaller town, suburb or neighborhood from which it is located that might not be newsworthy to a larger, or neighboring, area.

The sense of closeness can also come in the form of familiarity, where a reader might recognize the reporter’s byline as someone who attends their church or social club, who they can comfortably approach to ask about the news. This study also recognizes that the closeness might also take the form of a connection that, instead of being geographic, is instead based on demographics, ideology, or general interest. From online forums for LGBTQ+ youths to printed newspapers for the Amish and Mennonites in the U.S., a considerable amount of research has found that the idea of “community” expands far beyond physical proximity (Davis, Elin & Reeher, 2002; Carey, 2012; Carey, 2016; Hawkins & Watson, 2017). However, this study progressed using physical proximity as its primary focus of “community.”

The world of community journalism has undergone a drastic change in the last two decades, despite still making up a large percentage of the overall volume of printed news in the U.S. (Reader, 2018). That change has been almost entirely economical (Abernathy, 2014; Abernathy, 2018; Lenz, 2020). Decreased circulation has caused a plummeting of advertising revenue rates and cash from lost subscriptions. The decrease in earnings has caused many community news outlets to close down, leaving many areas without consistent information-sharing outlets, which causes noticeable negative changes in a community.

News Deserts & Ghost Papers

News deserts, referred to by some researchers as media deserts, are geographic areas that do not contain regularly updated news from outlets dedicated to covering only that specific area (Ferrier, Sinha & Outrich, 2016; Abernathy, 2018). The term is used to refer to areas that once contained dedicated daily or weekly print newspapers, often with corresponding websites, that have since shuttered due to the impact of the Internet and social media on the traditional business model of community news (Abernathy, 2016). While news deserts are often conceptualized as dusty rural towns, large urban centers often have smaller designated neighborhoods with unique issues that are without regular coverage as well (Rafsky, 2020). Many times these news-desert neighborhoods within metropolitan areas carry a bigger population than the rural towns. Both metropolitan and rural news deserts carry a common issue where the news desert’s reach tends to sprawl further when the community in question is not predominantly white, not Christian, not within traditional sexual and gender norms, and at least middle class or lower (Ferrier, Sinha & Outrich, 2016).

Although news deserts are caused by economic issues, their impact reaches far beyond the pocketbook. Previous research on the impact of news deserts has found that expansion of news deserts correlates with a decline in civic information flow (Miller, 2018), a decline in voter turnout and engagement with local government (Watson & Cavanah, 2015; Abernathy, 2016), and higher levels of government inefficiency, likely caused by persistent lack of a watchdog (Gao, Lee & Murphy, 2018).

This study follows a slightly different path than the research studying the impact of news desert expansion. Instead of studying the negative impacts to people in a community and the community itself when the local community newspaper runs out of money and closes, this study is part of a growing body of work studying the continued information-seeking behavior of those people and communities. The assumption this work progresses with, based on established community journalism research, is that the closure of community news outlets is primarily driven by economic factors inherent in the collapse of subscription-based and advertisement-based revenues, not the publics’s aadeclining interest in community information . Experiments and analysis have demonstrated that people within a community still seek information about that community, but they are increasingly seeking the information on blogs, social media, and other digital spaces (Belair-Gagnon at al., 2019; Sukmono & Junaedi, 2019; Cardillo, 2021)

Another important note, specific to this study, is the decline in community news has also caused a decline in the available data for public health researchers and epidemiologists, who have traditionally relied on the output of information from community news outlets for studying disease outbreaks and providing communities with information needed to combat outbreaks (Branswell, 2018).

Television is often excluded from the news desert conversation because local television stations tend to be centralized in an urban area within a given market, where the majority of their reporters only extend journalistic coverage to smaller outlying communities in three predictable news frames: crime, disaster, and sports (Abernathy, 2016). Even though a television station’s coverage area might contain upwards of 20 counties in Georgia, for example, that station is less likely to send a reporter to the counties farthest away from the station’s home base unless there was a murder, a tornado, or a regional-level high-school sports championship. Thus, in terms of relief from the problems caused by news deserts, television lacks the capacity to fulfill most of the “closeness-based” community news obligations via its primary delivery system.

The increasingly common phenomenon of “ghost papers” has made the collection of analyzable news desert data difficult (Abernathy, 2020). “Ghost papers” are smaller community-based printed newspapers that, in the literal sense, still exist, but without the ability to perform core journalistic functions. They still publish at regular intervals, they still carry legally required governmental records and statements, and they still print community obituaries and birth announcements. What defines a ghost paper is that they no longer carry meaningful independent reporting by either professional or participatory community journalists. They often no longer pay for a regular staff of reporters, no longer regularly cover the social functions required of a community news outlet, and rarely if ever report on the actions of city councils, county commissions, school boards, or other political bodies. Because of the lack of journalistic personnel, they also tend to lack the manpower needed for proactive, anticipatory entrepreneurial reporting. Instead, ghost papers rely on unvetted press releases for most written copy. Ghost papers are the journalistic equivalent of empty calories: They exist, and you can read them, but you’re not getting much of anything educationally nutritious from them. Data from Abernathy (2020) suggests that the number of ghost papers in the U.S. is indeed increasing, caused by the same dynamics behind news deserts: A decline in the traditional revenue system of printed news.


This study focused on Reddit as a potential alleviation for the problem of news deserts. Reddit is best defined as a social link aggregation system, making it somewhat more complex than a social networking service like Facebook or a microblogging platform like Twitter. Instead of there being a single thing called “Reddit,” the website is composed of thousands of individual topics-based pages known as “subreddits.” Subreddits are denoted by the use of “/r/” in front of their names, as that is what appears in the URL. According to Reddit, there are about 140,000 “active” subreddits out of 1.2 million total subreddits, although Reddit has not been clear about how it classifies “active” (Marotti, 2018). At the time of data collection, web data aggregation site Similarweb ranked Reddit in the top-20 of most-visited websites on Earth and is the 9th-most-visited in the U.S. (Similarweb Top Websites Ranking, 2022). Subsequent data lists it at 10th-most-visited in the U.S. as of May 2024 (Similarweb Top Websites Ranking, 2024)

Reddit functions differently than many other forms of social media. Users can create profiles, but they are not as closely linked to one’s central identity in the same way users tend to approach more traditional social networking sites like Facebook. Users can make three kinds of “posts” within a subreddit: A self-post, which is like typing in text as a blog post; an image-post, where the user submits an uploaded photograph that automatically loads within Reddit’s page; and a link-post, where users submit URLs to websites outside of Reddit. All content, regardless of the kind of post, will then appear on the subreddit’s page with a set of arrows next to it: an orange one pointed upwards and a blue one pointed downward. All users can then “upvote” or “downvote” the content by clicking on either arrow to signal either agreement or disagreement. Although official “Reddiquette” dictates that the voting should be done along lines of usefulness, it is accepted among Reddit users that the voting is primarily done as a form of showcasing agreement and disagreement (Reddiquette, 2021). The ratio of upvotes-to-downvotes is used by Reddit, along with the number of comments, the number of hours since it was posted, and other undisclosed components in their proprietary system for ranking the order of content on a subreddit. Reddit has never fully released their ranking algorithm out of fear advertisers would learn how to manipulate it (Coldewey, 2016).

Reddit has been the subject of a considerable amount of mass communication research over the last decade, especially in the last five years. The research has taken many forms, from studying general hoaxes and misinformation spread (Achimescu & Chachev, 2020; Tasnik, Hossain & Mazumder, 2020; Mamie, Ribeiro & West, 2021) to more specifically examining the use of Reddit among radicalizers (Grover & Mark, 2019; Raemdonck, 2019) to studying the way information flows from traditional news into Reddit (Funk, 2018; Riley & Cowart, 2018).

Research Questions

Based on the existing literature that has examined the impact and importance of informational needs at the community level, the study progressed with the following two research questions.

 R1) How have geographically based digital communities shared information related to the COVID-19 pandemic?

R2) Does content posted to geographically based digital communities fulfill the FCC’s identified community-based health informational needs?


This study was conducted as a mixed-method content analysis. First, a sample was made using qualifying geographically based subreddits. This study started with the same list of subreddits used by Riley & Cowart (2021), but reexamination of the subreddits revealed that seven of those subreddits no longer qualified as “active,” in that they did not have at least one active post in the previous week as measured on July 1, 2022. Each subreddit was assigned a news desert score, which was determined using the number of dedicated news outlets within the given county as collected by Abernathy (2018).

For the purposes of this analysis, a lower number represents a harsher news desert climate, while a larger number would mean more news outlets in that county. This study recognizes that some do disagree with the metrics Abernathy (2018) used to determine the existence of what would qualify for local and community news (Williams, 2020). However, Abernathy’s (2018) data is the most robust available determination of news desert status, and as such, this study progressed with that as a noted limitation. Georgia-based subreddits were chosen because of Georgia’s unique dynamic within news desert data. Georgia contains more counties without a dedicated news outlet, either daily or weekly, print or digital, than all of the other regions of the U.S. combined. The subreddits included in the sample and their corresponding population data are below in Table 1.

Table 1

The subreddits selected, their subscriber numbers, and the real-life population of those geographic areas.

Subreddit: Real population of geographic area: Number of subreddit subscribers: News score: Number of posts in previous week as of July 1, 2022:
/r/Alpharetta 65,818 26,068 11 8
/r/Athens 127,315 28,004 2 54
/r/Augusta 202,081 17,582 3 16
/r/ColumbusGA 206,922 10,246 2 17
/r/DaltonGA 34,417 2,491 1 3
/r/Gwinnett* 942,627 30,583 1 13
/r/Macon 157,346 9,346 1 3
/r/Marietta 60,972 14,600 1 6
/r/Newnan 42,549 4,518 1 2
/r/RomeGA 37,713 2,773 1 2
/r/Roswell 92,833 8,093 11 2
/r/Savannah 147,780 30,445 3 4
/r/Valdosta 55,378 4,154 1 3

*NOTE: /r/Gwinnett is a subreddit created to represent Gwinnett County, Georgia, and as such is the only subreddit not representing a single municipality.  

It should be noted that there are geographic areas examined as a part of this study that might not immediately conjure up the idea of a “news desert.” Athens, Savannah, and Macon are all used in this sample, and are serviced by daily newspapers and are the centralized hub for TV news stations in their given markets. However, this study is looking at the capacity for digital spaces to act as a conduit for both information-sharing and information-seeking behavior, and as such those places were included because they allow for comparison of those behaviors. This also allows for examination of user-created information that is entirely bypassing the traditional community journalism infrastructure, even in places that still have a functioning form of traditional, centralized news media.

Another important note is the exclusion of /r/Atlanta, which is the subreddit for the entire Atlanta metropolitan area. While existing research on community journalism does recognize that community news needs to exist within sub-areas of larger metros, the rules of the /r/Atlanta subreddit indicate it is to be used for information for the entire metropolitan area, and as such causes an overlap one level above the “community” level of news and more into the “local” level of news. As such, it does not make epistemological sense to include /r/Atlanta within the sample. There are no comparative sub-areas within any of the three larger cities of Athens, Savannah and Macon in the same way there are for Atlanta.

After the subreddit list was created, the study progressed by searching four key informational groupings using the internal search system in each subreddit. First was the disease itself, using the terms “coronavirus” and “COVID-19”; then were three earlier prevention elements of “social distancing,” “masks” or “mask mandate”; and finally the late prevention elements of  “vaccine” or “vaccination.”  After searching for those key terms, all results were screen-captured and saved for further analysis on July 1, 2022, making the effective date range of the sample January 1, 2020 to July 1, 2022. Results that matched the key terms but were irrelevant to the framework of community-based public health information were discarded. An example of an irrelevant post would be someone posting “I haven’t had good Thai food since before the COVID-19 mess, where is the best place to get a bowl of take-out curry around here?” COVID-19 is not the primary topic of the information-seeking request, nor is it a public-health-based request at all. However, if someone asked for a recommendation for a Thai restaurant that was following masking and social distancing protocols, that would be saved and analyzed, as public health is a part of the information-seeking request. Also, results before January 2020 were discarded, as they were not about the pandemic, despite the fact that the pandemic began in late 2019 in other parts of the world. Results prior to January 2020 contained no information about the COVID-19 pandemic.

A general, grounded codebook was developed using the FCC’s (Friedland et al., 2012) community informational needs, focusing just on the health-based sub-needs. The options for primary frames based on the Friedland et al. (2012) work were: access to information about basic public health; the availability, quality, and cost of local health care; information on health-based programs, and services; timely information in accessible language on the spread of disease and vaccination; and timely access to information about local health campaigns and intervention.

Posts were then read and analyzed for common phrasing, common structure, and common informational framing to determine if they fit within any of those health-based informational categories, with the final determination made by the coder. The initial sorting of the content was solely looking for if the information provided in the post met any of the criteria listed by Friedland et al. (2012).

After the primary informational frame was determined, posts were then re-read by the coder to determine if there were deeper patterns at play in the way information was being posted, where two differences emerged. If a Reddit user was seeking information from the other users of the subreddit, that was coded “Asking.” If the Reddit user was posting information for others to have, that was “Volunteering.” Posts that contained pandemic-related information, but not in a way that would qualify as health information, were saved and re-analyzed into their own subframes of information flow. That initial grouping allowed for deeper analysis into patterns, and possible intent, of both the information-sharing and information-seeking behaviors.

The study was completed using a single coder; however intercoder reliability was assessed using the study’s primary coder and one other independently trained coder. A 10% chunk of the sample, or about 60 posts, were independently coded for intercoder reliability tests, which were performed using ReCal2. Because of the more grounded, thematic-based approach to coding, simple percent agreement tests were used with an 80% threshold. All coded options passed with at least 86% as the lowest percent agreement.


Three strata of activeness commonality appeared in the volume of COVID-related public health information posted to the subreddits. The top strata included /r/Savannah with 168 total posts, followed by /r/Athens at 125 and /r/Augusta at 116. Those three were the only subreddits with posts in the triple-digit range. Below that was a second strata of /r/Gwinnett with 85, /r/ColumbusGA with 42, /r/Roswell with 38, /r/Alpharetta with 24, and /r/Marietta with 19. The lowest-volume strata included /r/Macon with nine, /r/RomeGA with eight, /r/Valdosta with five, and /r/DaltonGA and /r/Newnan with one post each. That added up to a total sample of 641 posts about COVID-19 in the selected subreddits from the beginning of the pandemic in January 2020 until July 2022. Posts within that sample were not subsampled – all qualifying posts that were collected were included for analysis. The breakdown of posts compared to news desert score can be seen below in Table 2.

Table 2

The frequency of number of posts in the sample from each subreddit compared to the news desert score.

Subreddit Number of qualifying posts News desert score
/r/Savannah 168 3
/r/Athens 125 2
/r/Augusta 116 3
/r/Gwinnett 85 1
/r/ColumbusGA 42 2
/r/Roswell 38 11
/r/Alpharetta 24 11
/r/Marietta 19 1
/r/Macon 9 1
/r/RomeGA 8 1
/r/Valdosta 5 1
/r/DaltonGA 1 1
/r/Newnan 1 1
Total 641

Four distinct top-level groupings appeared within the information flow of the interactions of content within the thematic-based frame coding. The first will be referred to as “Asking.” These were public-health-based questions asked by a user to the rest of the users in the subreddit about one or multiple issues involving the COVID-19 pandemic. Of the 641 total coded posts, 189 were coded as “Asking”. The second will be referred to as “Volunteering.” These were pieces of public health-based information posted by a user for the apparent good of everyone else. Of the 641 total coded posts, 190 were coded as “Volunteering.” Both the Asking and the Volunteering categories of content almost entirely took the form of self-posts, which are the text-based blog–style posts, instead of posting photos or outside hyperlinks. The “Asking” and “Volunteering” content were all organically or semi-organically produced, meaning they were not direct hyperlinks to content from existing news outlets. That organic and semi-organic content represents the capacity for these subreddits to act as a supplement for decreases in community-level coverage and will be explored further later in this study.

The third grouping was content that led to an article or video from an existing news outlet. Of the 641 total coded posts, 141 were coded as “Linking.” Of those 141, 125 were links to basic news articles, video packages, or podcasts that included information about COVID-19, although many of those aligned with political arguments and fights over safety policy. Sixteen of the 141 were links to feature stories, with the most-common form of feature story being a personality profile of a prominent local figure who had died from the virus. In all, this whole grouping was almost exclusively news articles from the websites of local and regional newspapers, state-wide news outlets, or local TV stations. A few upstart digital-based community news outlets were represented in the sample, and although those do indicate another path for alleviating the problems caused by the collapse of community journalism in the U.S., they are not within the scope of this study’s analysis.

The fourth grouping was organic content, similar in nature to the “Asking” and “Volunteering” groups, but about issues that were only tangentially related to COVID-19. This group was coded as “Discussing.” These were points of conversation that involved COVID-19 and prevention methods but were not explicitly about public health. There were 121 posts in this grouping. Unlike the “Asking” and “Volunteering” groups, which were almost entirely self-posts, the “Discussing” group was a mixture of self-posts and image-posts, although there were still very few hyperlinks sending the reader away from Reddit.

A breakdown of the frequencies of the four top-level groupings can be seen below in Table 3.

Table 3

Frequencies of the top-level groupings found across the geographically based subreddits.

Grouping Number of posts
Volunteering information 190
Asking for information 189
Linking to information 141
Discussing information 121
Total 641

After the sample was sorted into the four basic categories, the content was then reexamined using thematic-based analysis to discover information-flow patterns within both the “Asking” and “Volunteering” sub-groupings. This looked for common frames, common tone, and common structure in the volunteering process.


Of the 190 posts coded as organic forms of “Volunteering,” the most-common category of information was posts volunteering how many positive cases were in the community. However, this comes with a bit of a caveat. The majority of those posts were automatically generated by a computer script. They were text-posts, so they were not direct hyperlinks, but the text posts tended to include links back to the Georgia Department of Public Health’s website that contained the official report of cases. They tended to be set to update once per-week on a regular interval of some . The language used was the same each time, indicating a template creation. The creators of those auto-posting computer scripts either included language in the posts themselves that indicated they were created by a bot, they were posted by accounts with “Bot” in the name, or the creator of the account, using a separate account, would clarify they had made the account to automatically post updates. The use of bots does not appear to be deceptive, and commentors were often thankful that someone went to the trouble to make something to keep the community updated.

Some of the automatic posts gathered community sources, and some had custom-created content. For example, for six months in 2021, a member of /r/Augusta posted the weekly podcast-style update on the number of cases in the area. The update podcasts were made by medical students at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta, not the Reddit account using a script to automatically post the content to Reddit. That user also updated the safety protocols based on the ever-changing CDC guidance and included community assistance information. An example can be seen below in Figure 1:

A screenshot of an automatically generated COVID-19 update post made to /r/Augusta

Some went even further. In /r/Savannah, the main active moderator of the subreddit posted hand-curated weekly updates for the first eight months of the pandemic in 2020. The updates, nicknamed “Megathreads,” included an updated count of cases, a list of resources, news updates, school, churches, and business closure updates. An example of that can be seen below in Figure 2:

Figure 2

A screenshot of a hand-curated COVID-19 “Megathread” posted to /r/Savannah

Either automatically generated or hand-curated, the existence of these posts shows a sense of participatory entrepreneurship among the members of the community-based subreddits. Even the “bots” and the computer scripts that manage them had to be created by someone with coding skills, and instead of linking to established news outlets, they often linked directly to the Georgia Department of Public Health. In the most literal sense, this was members of a community creating their own micro version of a regular news publication in a way that mimics small hyperlocal news production.

After the semi-automatically posted updates, the second-most-common grouping of “Volunteered” information was 25 posts volunteering that people in a certain place or area were not adhering to calls to socially distance and not wearing masks. Essentially, these were posts that intended to warn others who tried to follow COVID-19 safety protocols that these were not safe locations. There were 10 different sub-groupings of these kinds of posts: eight warnings about specific restaurants, seven warnings about general areas of town, such as “downtown” or “midtown,” that did not mention any specific business, two warnings about bars or clubs, two warnings about doctors’ offices wherein the doctors and nurses had claimed they didn’t believe COVID-19 was real, and one warning each about a shopping mall, a mechanic’s shop, a catering business, a hardware store, and a grocery store. There was one post specifically warning that management at Plant Votgle, a nuclear power plant in Waynesboro, Georgia, was not requiring employees to wear masks and socially distance. It can be seen below in Figure 3:

Figure 3

A screenshot of a volunteered warning posted to /r/Augusta

After warnings about specific businesses or locations, the next-most-common form of “Volunteered” information was 23 posts about vaccines. These posts did not have any sub-groups, and were entirely people posting the locations, times, dates, and availability of vaccine distribution. Next, 23 posts volunteered information about changes in protocol in a given community, broken down into 10 sub-groups. Six of those posts volunteered changes in public school protocols, and six volunteered general changes in indoor masking protocols. Two each were about changes in stay-at-home orders, general public policy, and canceled community events. One each were about emergency government meetings that had been called to discuss changes in protocol, about changes in the community’s Animal Control office, about a new smartphone app to track changes in protocol, about policies at the local public pool, and about changes in the state’s legal liability rules for COVID in private businesses.

The next most-common form of “Volunteering” was people posting warnings that they had heard about businesses and workplaces having positive cases but keeping them hidden. The types of places being warned about were quite varied: three for specific restaurants, two for USPS post offices, two for specific public schools, and one each for a grocery store, a coffee shop, an OBGYN, the corporate offices for the insurance company AFLAC, and the Marietta police department.

From there, there were nine posts that volunteered information on testing. Five were general postings of the date and times testing would be available, two specified drive-in options one volunteered a service that could do virtual testing, and one was warning of the overall business of mass-testing sites.

As almost an inverse of the content that was warning people of places in the community not following safety protocols, eight posts volunteered information about, and often praising, community businesses that were enforcing masking and social-distancing protocols. Two posts were about local health clinics that were strictly enforcing masking protocols as well as organized outdoor activities, with the two posts, for example, praising Athens for having an outdoor kickball league after the CDC indicated that outdoor activities were considerably safer than being indoors. From there, there was one post each praising a grocery store, a concert venue, a restaurant, and a bookstore.

The number of “Volunteer” posts slimmed down after that. Three posts told people about their own experiences being ill with the disease, three posts volunteered which locations were strictly enforcing vaccine mandates, three posts told people where masks were available, and one post each: explained the scientific data about efficiency of different kinds of masks, who qualified for PPP loans, noted where general aid was available, and informed people a popular local business had closed.


Of the 189 posts coded as organic forms of “Asking,” the most-common category of question was people asking for recommendations for local businesses that followed proper safety protocols, with 70 posts. Masking enforcement was the most-commonly-desired form of safety protocol identified in the language of the request. Although some requests were specific about places following social distancing, there were no requests for businesses mandating vaccines or checking for positive vaccine status. An example of this kind of request can be seen below in Figure 4:

Figure 4

A screenshot of a request for a local business following safety protocols posted to /r/Savannah

Within the 60 posts requesting recommendations for businesses that are following safety protocols, 14 requested restaurants, 10 requested organized outdoor activities like adult kickball or disc golf, eight requested information about a general town area, such as asking “are people in downtown Savannah masking?” and eight requested hair salons, nail salons, or barber shops. From there, six requested gyms, three requested coffee shops, and three requested concert venues. Two each requested gun ranges, a primary care physician, grocery stores, and artist/craft workspaces, while one each requested a movie theater, a church, a tax accountant, a massage therapist, a manicure/pedicure salon, a haunted historical tour, a chiropractor, an auto mechanic, and a farmer’s market. These requests make up an important part of this study’s analysis – it represents something that goes above and beyond what centralized, traditional community news can accomplish. It is largely out of the realm of manpower for even a robust community news outlet to keep track of every possible business in every possible sector in their entire coverage area to see if they are following COVID-19 protocols. Because the subreddits can act as decentralized, participatory information hubs, they effectively act as an on-demand community information service.

While asking for businesses following protocols may have been the biggest chunk of information requests, they were not the only requests. Past that, the next-biggest sub-grouping in the “Asking” category was a collection of 26 posts asking about where to find COVID-19 tests in their community. Fifteen of those requests were general requests for testing times and locations, and all were answered in the comments by members. Chronologically, these requests were not common in the early days of the pandemic. Instead they became more popular after the vaccines became available, in spring and summer 2021. That is when more travel opened up, as well as some employers choosing to enforce rest results for those not willing to get the vaccine. Either way, there was a flood of posts asking about rapid tests for employment or travel. An example of that can be seen below in Figure 5:

Figure 5

A screenshot of a request for rapid-results tests posted to /r/Athens

There were then more-specific requests for testing: 11 posts specifically requested rapid tests, usually in the name of travel or work, four posts specifically requested free tests, three posts specifically requested at-home tests, three posts specifically requested drive-through testing, and one post specifically requested testing sites that were open late because they said they worked the third shift at a paper mill. There was one outlier in this subgrouping, which was four posts asking if other people had experienced delays in results from specific testing centers. The researchers of this study ponder if perhaps some of those individuals fell victim to the many scam testing sites that were rampant in Georgia in 2021 (Yu, 2022).

Next in the “Asking” sub-group by volume was requests for the status of general COVID-related public health policies, of which there were 18 total requests. Of those, eight asked about the current status of mask mandates, four asked about a general sense of policy unrelated to any single informational component, and two each asked about what the enforcement of policy is like, in the sense of if people are issued tickets, fines, etc., and what the current general policy was in public schools. One each asked about society in general “opening back up” and in general about vaccine policy. Many of these requests carried a tone of hopelessness that little clear guidance was coming from above, and many stressed the importance of community in the face of peril. An example of this can be seen below in Figure 6:

Figure 6:

A screenshot of a request for policy guidance posted to /r/Savannah

The next sub-group was 15 requests about vaccine information that broke down into various forms of specificity. Ten of the posts asked, generally, about the vaccine. Most of those general requests were questions about when others thought vaccines would be approved and when they would be available in their community. From there, seven were specifically requests about where vaccines were available in the early days of distribution. Earlier date requests tended to ask about large-scale drive-up and drive-through vaccination sites, and later dates tend to ask about which pharmacies had appointment availability. Two posts specifically asked about what the wait times were for mass-vaccination centers because they were trying to time their work lunch break correctly, and one-each was asking about where the 1-shot Johson & Johnson vaccine was available, asking if it was OK to skip the second dose of the two-shot vaccines, and asking which brand vaccine others planned on getting.

There were two other groups in the double-digits within the content coded “Asking”. There were 10 posts, all from the winter of 2020-2021, asking what the order of vaccine availability currently was. Most of those inquiries were people stating their situation, such as a pre-existing condition or a high-risk job, and asking if that means they are able to sign up for vaccination. There were no sub-groups within that request. The other 10 posts asked about masks. Seven of those were general inquiries about who had masks for sale in the given community area, with a breakdown into sub-groups that included one post specifically asking about child-sized cloth masks, one post asking specifically about which stores sold KN95 masks, and one post was from someone asking if anyone in the community could make custom masks with sports logos on them.

From there, the “Asking” group dips down into single–digit subgroups. There were nine posts generally requesting that people please consider wearing masks in public for the sake of public health in their community. These posts ranged across seven different subreddits. Eight posts asked how many official positive cases there were in the given community. Six total posts asked about other peoples’ vaccine status, with two of those being specific requests for others to share their side-effect experience. From there, three posts asked specifically about the status of community Halloween Trick-or-Treating plans. All three were posted in October 2020, before vaccine availability, and all three were posted in different subreddits, indicating that this was somewhat of a common community concern in late 2020.

Perhaps the eeriest set of “Asking” posts were the three posted in January and February 2020 in /r/Augusta, /r/Athens, and /r/Savannah asking when people in the given community thought that area would get their first case. At no point did anyone in the comments of those posts indicate they thought things would turn out OK – instead, there was an early assumption that COVID-19 was going to spread quickly through their community and there would be no stopping it. The tone of these posts were very much in the sense of “When will this problem get here?” There were three posts, all in June and July 2020, that asked about the general status of “businesses” being open. These were not requests specific to single named businesses, and instead were general requests in the frame of “Are things, in general, still open downtown?”

Two posts asked if anyone knew of a job that would be COVID-19 safe that was hiring in late 2020. And there were one each of the following “Asks”: One inquiry into the accuracy of COVID-19 at-home tests, one post asking if people in the community had experienced stigma from choosing to wear a mask in public, one post asking if the Masters Tournament in Augusta would be canceled, one post asking generally about the science of what makes the COVID-19 virus different from other viruses, and one post generally asking if others in the community thought things would be canceled because of the big summer wave of positive cases in 2021.


The 141 posts coded “Linking” were hyperlinks back to existing news coverage. The biggest single sub-group was people posting links to articles about changes in masking protocols with 28 posts. From there, there were 14 posts about case surges during the late summer and early fall of 2020. There were also 16 feature articles, with seven of those on prominent local deaths from the disease. The rest of the “Linking” posts were a smattering of issues, many political. But because they linked directly to content from established news companies, they were not deeply analyzed for topic, as they do not represent the capacity for these geographically based subreddits to produce their own news.


The final group was the “Discussing” group, which were the 121 posts that contained some element of public health information but were not purely a “Volunteer” of information nor a requested “Ask” of information. These tended to be framed in ways that spurred on discussion, or in many cases, argument.

The most-common type of “Discussing” post was 43 posts, common across all of the subreddits in the sample, that were noted as “Arguments, Rants, or Expressions of Anger.” All but one of these expressed some kind of anger toward people shirking public health guidelines. An example of this can be seen below in Figure 7

Figure 7

A screenshot of an Argument, Rant or Expression of Anger posted to /r/Gwinnett

Included in those 43 posts were photos of people lining up to get into clubs in /r/Athens, rants about how people complaining about masks were weak and selfish in /r/Augusta, and overall admonishing people who were not following protocols for elongating the crisis across all the subreddits. These posts were often filled with expletives and tended to have deep comment sections where people argued about the effectiveness of masks and various other virus-related points of contention. No other kind of “Discussion” post came close to those numbers, with the next-most-popular being eight posts volunteering non-medical services. That is an interesting juxtaposition compared to the bitter and argumentative rant posts. These posts, on the inverse, offered to help out others in their community, with such services offered as lawn mowing, grocery delivery, transportation to-and-from vaccination appointments, and house cleaning. Beyond that, the remaining 70 posts were a collection of 16 other sub-topics, none of which were coded at more than three each, and included excitement about vaccines being available, calls to boycott local businesses not following safety protocols, complaints about the University System of Georgia not enforcing masks on campuses, encouraging safety during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, and many other topics. However very few consistent commonalities in this group beyond rants and volunteering. 


R1) How have geographically based digital communities used their platform as a part of the flow of information related to the COVID-19 pandemic?

The results of this study indicate that geographically based subreddits used their digital spaces to share, and trade, necessary information about the COVID-19 pandemic. Users were just as likely to request information as they were to volunteer it, which shows a level of balance within the information flow. If there had been a huge amount of “Asking” behavior and a considerably lower amount of “Volunteering” behavior, then perhaps the assumption would be that these subreddits represent information loss from community-based outlets. But instead, there is almost a paired back-and-forth to the information flow. The thing most asked for was recommendations of businesses and services that followed COVID-19 protocols. The most-volunteered information, after the often bot-created case number updates and large “Megathreads,” was people posting which businesses and services were not following protocol. That represents an appearance of some dynamics of Uses & Gratification Theory, where sociality is one of the guiding motivators for interaction in digital spaces. Or, seen another way, Lowrey (2012) referred to community news as having a “Listening and Changing Dimension,” (pg. 96, in Reader, 2012), that helps define community journalism as a separate utility from other forms of journalism. If one combines the notion of sociality as a driving force of Uses & Gratification Theory in the digital age with the idea that community news has a higher rate of interaction via the “Listening and Changing Dimension,” it becomes a compelling argument that the further growth of digital spaces as community news hubs – be they Facebook pages, NextDoor accounts, or subreddits – will be much more participatory and interactive. The push-and-pull of question asking and information volunteering demonstrates that.

It also represents the use of geographically based subreddits to fulfill an informational need in a way that a traditional community news outlet likely could not. It would not be feasible for a community news outlet to know at any given time which of all of the businesses in their area that are following protocols and which are not. They could possibly run some positive stories on a few of the businesses that are , and perhaps some negative stories about businesses that are not, but reporters cannot be in all places at all times, whereas crowdsourced information in a community essentially turns anyone who might have the answer into a reporter.

R2) Does content posted to geographically based digital communities fulfill the FCC’s identified community-based health informational needs?

This study finds that all of the informational needs identified by Friedland et al. (2012) are present in some capacity within the sample, but some of the sub-groups are more present than others. There are five health information sub-components. The first is “access to information about basic public health.” There were components of the qualitatively assessed data that represent a fulfillment of that need, albeit none of them represented an overwhelming majority. Perhaps because this study was coding just for information related to the COVID-19 pandemic, most of the health information was, in some way, about COVID-19, meaning that the notion of “basic public health” was somewhat out-of-step with the scope of the study. There were basic public health questions asked, however, but there was no dominant question or dominant form of volunteered information. Information was requested and volunteered about the efficiency of masks, the danger level of various variants, what positive cases felt like, and early on, predictions as to when their area would receive its first positive case.

The second is “the availability, quality, and cost of local health care.” This was somewhat fulfilled, especially in the “Asking” behavior. This could be seen monetarily, where people asked about where to get free masks and free tests. It could also be seen from a quality perspective from people asking for recommendations for doctors’ offices, walk-in-clinics, OBGYNs and dentists who did not think the COVID-19 pandemic was a hoax. It should be noted that “Asking” represents only one side of the equation, and this study was not coding the comments under the “Asking” posts; however, informal observations note that the comments did often contain answers when people asked questions.

The third is “information on health-based programs and services.” This showed a clear fulfillment in the form of both asking and volunteering information about many posts containing information about drive-through testing, rapid testing, and mask give-outs.

The fourth is “timely information in accessible language on the spread of disease and vaccination.” This was perhaps one of the most-fulfilled informational needs. The automatically updating posts with the number of positive cases, the moderator-curated “Megathreads,” as well as the flood of requests for businesses following protocols and volunteered information about which businesses treated safety seriously acted as a kind of warning system.

The fifth is “timely access to information about local health campaigns and intervention.” While this was fulfilled, the researchers must note that this category was more fulfilled by the posts that linked back to news articles from established news outlets instead of organically developed community information.


The findings of this study indicate a similar conclusion to Riley & Cowart’s (2021) work examining geographically based community subreddits. Many, but not all, of the community informational needs noted by Friedland et al. (2012) and the FCC can be seen on geographically based subreddits in the back-and-forth flow of people asking questions and others volunteering information based on public health. In some cases, like volunteering when and where mass vaccination centers were and when they would open, the information mimics what might be available on a traditional community journalism outlet. But in other cases, like requests for custom-made masks or requests for which businesses followed protocol, those are informational dynamics separate from what a traditional community journalism outlet can usually provide. The 25 posts of people volunteering that their place of work is covering up positive cases, like was the case in the findings with restaurants, mechanics shops, and a nuclear power plant, represent an interesting removal of the middle-man from investigative reporting.

This study did have noted limitations that should be addressed with further research. The study used a sample that was based out of a single U.S. state. A larger geographically varied sample could help find both national trends and national differences. The study was also limited in its lack of ability to check for the accuracy of the information being posted. Someone posting a warning to avoid a local business that was not following COVID safety protocols was taken at face value in this study’s coding system. It could have very well been that the person posting the warning was angry at the business for other reasons and was lying on the Internet.

Combined with Riley & Cowart’s (2021) work looking more generally at Reddit and the FCC informational needs, the results of this study speak to many different options for future research. One would be to include analysis of the back-and-forth dynamic of Volunteering and Asking content. When people post community-based questions to a geographically based subreddit, how often are the questions being answered with correct, valid information?

Perhaps the most obvious direction for future research must embrace our core understanding of Uses & Gratification Theory by surveying the users of geographically based subreddits to see if they feel they are receiving a “well-rounded diet” of information from the subreddits, if they have ever had any real-world impacts based on information they received from the subreddits, and comparing their usage of the subreddits to their interaction with traditional centralized community news content.

These geographically based digital spaces need to be better understood. As the traditional infrastructure of community journalism in the U.S. continues to crumble, it is becoming desperately important for community journalism researchers to understand the places that lost audiences go to for community information. It is not enough to only discover the impact that the closure of traditional community media causes. We must also know what is taking its place and how it works and how people use it, even if those things taking their place are not gate-kept or centralized.


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About the Author

Jeffrey K. Riley is an associate professor of multimedia journalism at Georgia Southern University.

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