Wednesday, October 29, 2008

All over the 10 o'clock news...

John Mayer told us that "when you trust your television/What you get is what you got/Cause when they own the information, oh/They can bend it all they want." Well, it turns out it's worse than that - even if you think you're somewhat knowledgeable in an area, the media's coverage may affect the way you think.

At least that's what a new study published in PLoS ONE has found when it comes to diseases. Researchers at McMaster University wanted to see how media coverage of diseases affects the perception of their prevalence and severity. To do this, they asked undergraduate and medical students about 10 infectious diseases drawn from the CDC database. Five were medical disorders that have been highly prevalent in the media (anthrax, SARS, West Nile virus, Lyme disease and avian flu) and five not frequently covered (Tularemia, human babesiosis, yellow fever, Lassa fever and hantavirus).

"The media tend to focus on rare and dramatic events," says Meredith Young, one of the study's lead authors. "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."

When asked to rate how serious, how prevalent, and how "disease-like" various conditions were, students tended to find ones that were more talked about as more dangerous.

What's interesting is that the medical students - who, in theory, have more expertise on the matter - were just as influenced by the media as the undergrads. And, when the diseases were described to them without the name, the participants thought that the diseases which received less media coverage were worse - showing how strong the media's influence really is.

The media is supposed to serve as an informant, giving the public important information. But when media coverage is focused on sensationalized, 'exciting' news, it makes people think something is a lot worse than it is - giving the public unfounded fears, especially when it comes to infectious diseases. A single incident can cause irrational public concern even though the potential risk is relatively minor compared to other diseases- even among a population that is relatively informed.

What this really means is that the media controls a lot more than we think. Got a flu shot this year? That's probably because your local news kept talking about how the flu this year is likely to be worse than ever. Ads for medicines really might make people think they need them - or, at least, that the diseases they treat are much worse than they really are (I guess it's great news for pharmasudical companies). People might go buy bug spray on the east coast to keep away west nile mosquitos but ignore the ones in the west spreading yellow fever. Of course, this phenomenon likely extends beyond disease. More than ever, we need fair, objective reporting - even for to the experts.