Media Coverage, Personal Anxiety Influence Facts During Disease Outbreak

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During a disease outbreak, coverage of the event by the mass media as well as an individual's own anxiety level influence what a person remembers about the disease.

Alin Coman, PhD, of Princeton University, and colleagues decided to look at how the media’s coverage of the Ebola outbreak last year. Although the risk of contracting Ebola by the general public was slim, the researchers contend that the health risks were exaggerated by the media, possible leading the audience to pay more attention to the information presented.

An online study involving 460 U.S. adults was conducted in which they learned about symptoms, risk factors, diagnostic tools, and effect of meningococcal disease and then read a message about the disease.

For some participants, the message was “low-risk” in nature that mentioned that there is about one case of the disease per 100,000 individuals per year. Others were given a “high-risk” message that focused on the consequences of the disease, such as the fact that the mortality rate is as high as 40% in some age groups.

Each kind of message influenced differently how anxious participants felt about meningococcal disease, the researchers reported in the journal Psychological Science.

Coman noted that media coverage also shapes how people remember information that isn’t presented. For example, a newscast that highlights only some disease symptoms may induce people to forget other symptoms they had learned previously, but it probably won't affect their ability to recall disease characteristics that aren't symptoms.

Media Coverage, Personal Anxiety Influence Facts During Disease Outbreak
Coverage of the event by the mass media as well as an individual's own anxiety levels influence what a person remembers about the disease.

The health facts presented by mass media in the midst of a disease outbreak are likely to influence what we remember about the disease -- new research suggests that the same mass media coverage may also influence the facts that we forget.

The findings, published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, indicate that personal anxiety and mass media coverage interact to determine what people remember about a disease.

The researchers conducted an online study with 460 adult participants in the US. The participants learned about specific symptoms, risk factors, diagnostic tools, and aftereffects associated with meningococcal disease and then read a message about the disease.
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