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Media coverage affects how people perceive threat of disease: study

Hamilton, ON. October 29, 2008 Popular media coverage of infectious diseases greatly influences how people perceive those diseases, making them seem more dangerous, according to a new study from McMaster University.

The research, published online in the Public Library of Science: ONE, suggests diseases that show up frequently in the print media like bird flu are considered more serious than similar diseases that do not receive the same kind of coverage, such as yellow fever.

"The media tend to focus on rare and dramatic events," says Meredith Young, one of the study's lead authors and a graduate student in the Department of Psychology, Neuroscience & Behaviour. "When a certain disease receives repeated coverage in the press, people tend to focus on it and perceive it as a real threat. This raises concerns regarding how people view their own health, how they truly understand disease and how they treat themselves."

Researchers chose 10 infectious diseases drawn from the Centre for Disease Control database. Five were medical disorders that have been highly prevalent in the recent print media anthrax, SARS, West Nile virus, Lyme disease and avian flu and five were medical disorders that have not often been present in current media: Tularemia, human babesiosis, yellow fever, Lassa fever and hantavirus.

Two groups of students, undergraduate and medical students, were asked to rate how serious, how prevalent, and how "disease-like" various conditions were.

"We see that a single incident reported in the media, can cause great public concern if it is interpreted to mean that the potential risk is difficult to control, as with the possibility of a pandemic like in the case of Avian flu, and bioterrorism, as in the case of anthrax infection," says Young.

Conversely, when participants were presented with the descriptions of the disease, without the name, they actually thought that the diseases which received infrequent media coverage the control group were actually worse.

"Another interesting aspect of the study is when we presented factual information about the diseases along with the names of them, the media effect wasn't nearly as strong," says Karin Humphreys, one of the study's authors and assistant professor in the Department of Psychology, Neuroscience & Behaviour. "This suggests that people can overcome the influence of the media when you give them the facts, and so objective reporting is really critical."

Equally surprising, says Humphreys, is the fact that the medical students who would have more factual knowledge about these diseases were just as influenced by the media, despite their background.


Contact: Michelle Donovan
McMaster University

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