Hearing about a disease in newspapers and on TV makes people overestimate its severity and the risk of catching it, a study from McMaster University in Canada has found. Diseases such as anthrax and SARS are considered to be more deadly than other similar afflictions with a lower media profile.
“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.”
The researchers conducted three experiments in order to discover the effect media reporting can have. In the first, 53 undergraduate psychology students were asked to rate 10 medical conditions for level of seriousness,the likelihood the condition represented a disease, and the chances of someone catching it.
Of the 10 conditions selected for the study, five had a heavy media profile (anthrax, West Nile virus, avian flu, SARS and Lyme disease) whilst the other half were less well known (tularemia, yellow fever, hantavirus, lassa fever and human babesiosis) but chosen to closely match one of the widely reported diseases. The results were a strong correlation between the perceived seriousness of a disease and its media profile.
The team wondered if a more medically knowledgeable study group might show different results. The experiment was repeated with 43 first year medical students, and surprisingly the findings were very similar. It seems that even a more medically oriented person is susceptible to the influence of the media.
Interestingly when more details such as symptoms or method of transmission were provided along with the name of the disease, participants rated high and low profile diseases much closer.
“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.”