In this age of twenty-four hour news programs and news sites that are updated minute by minute, to say the media plays a key role in society would clearly be a gross understatement. Social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter are the newest frontier in information dissemination, commanding the power to generate a more informed citizenry, but also to perpetuate widespread panic. Unsurprisingly, the reach of media outlets extends to the medical world where they have a real effect on disease control.
A study conducted at McMaster University in October 2008 concluded that media coverage greatly affects how people perceive the threat posed by diseases, often negatively. Participants, who included undergraduate and medical students, were asked to rate ten conditions on their degree of “disease-likeness,” prevalence, and seriousness. Though all the conditions were in fact diseases, half of the illnesses, such as anthrax, had recently received a great deal of media attention, while the rest, such as yellow fever, did not receive significant attention. Results showed that subjects, including medical students, rated the diseases that receive more media attention as having greater seriousness.
Earlier in the year, this trend of misinterpretation of information found a new outlet in social networking sites. USA Today writer Chuck Raasch reported in May 2009 that Twitter was fast becoming a source of misleading rumors. Some tweets asserted that swine flu was spread through the consumption of pork while others declared that H1N1 was actually germ warfare. The new outlet in which these lies were propagated led public relations experts to declare the government’s communication plan, created in 2005 during the avian flu outbreak, as obsolete. Social networking sites have grown so much in recent years that they must be utilized; it is no longer effective for the government to simply create a single message to be propagated through mainstream media. Mark Senak, a health communications expert quoted in the USA Today article, called for a movement from broadcasting to “niche-casting.” “Niche-casting” utilizes these new forms of media, tailoring messages to social networking sites and new modes of communication rather than creating one general message for mainstream media.
The government is now being tested as we get deeper into flu season. Fortunately, the CDC has answered this call to “niche-casting” through almost every social media outlet imaginable. Its twitter page is full of tweets about resources – how to prevent the flu, where to get vaccines, and preparedness plans for small businesses. Facebook and YouTube feature informative posts and videos with basic tips like hand washing and covering sneezes. Catchy phrases like “Wash ‘em” and “Cover it!” highlight the same disease-preventing habits on posters posted on the CDC’s Flickr account. The department of Health and Human Services has taken its role in public education just as seriously, even creating the “2009 Flu Prevention Public Service Announcement Contest” with a $2,500 grand prize which called for PSA commercials to be submitted on YouTube.
Such a hearty response is even more encouraging when coupled with the second finding of the McMaster study. When subjects were given factual information about the nature of the diseases in addition to their names, the effect of the media weakened, proving that provided with objective and informative reporting the public is in fact able to make sensible judgments and avoid panicking.