During health crises, the news media is often criticized for sensationalized reporting, which some say induces fear among the public. But new research out of Towson University and Philadelphia University suggests that all that frightening news coverage can actually encourage people to take more precautions.
Using survey data from 411 undergraduates at an American university, researchers Lingling Zhang, Ying Kong, and Hua Chang examined the media’s impact on how students prepared for a possible H1N1 flu outbreak. They published their results in the Atlantic Journal of Communication in April 2015.
Participants were asked how often they used television, newspapers, and the Internet to gather information about the H1N1 flu strain. The participants were then asked about their degree of perceived knowledge about the flu (for instance, “I am well informed about the possible prevention measures regarding H1N1 flu”), how afraid they were of the flu (“I am concerned that I may get sick from H1N1 flu during the next 6 months”), and how likely they were to take preventative measures to avoid the flu, such as washing their hands, avoiding people who are ill, and getting a vaccine.
The survey results were run through a series of statistical tests to determine the relationship between participants’ consumption of news, their fear of the flu, and the behaviors they intended to take to prevent illness.
The researchers found that increased media coverage of H1N1 flu increased participants’ feelings of fear. However, the coverage also increased participants’ sense of being knowledgeable about the flu – a key factor in getting people to take preventative health measures. By increasing both a sense of fear and a sense of knowledge, the media coverage of the virus actually helped encourage preventative actions.
“With repeated exposure to the information about H1N1 flu, media consumers were more comfortable with their knowledge about H1N1. The higher perceived knowledge media users have, the more likely they will take prevention actions because they feel they have the knowledge and ability to do so,” the authors explain.
“[M]ass media have positive impacts during a health crisis,” the authors note. “They educate the public and persuade the public to take precautions…Although consumption of media coverage of H1N1 flu is related to exaggerated negative perceptions about H1N1, the fearful feelings can actually motivate individuals to take more preventative measures.”
Atlantic Journal of Communication
Lingling Zhang and Ying Kong, Towson University
Hua Chang, Philadelphia University