The Media Bug

The media's impact on public perception of disease

Hypochondriac

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Some people may not think of artists as being scientifically minded or scientists as caring about the arts, but it's a surprisingly common crossover. Look at Richard Feynman- he won the Nobel Prize for physics and loved painting... and bongo drums. David X. Cohen, who has a BA in physics from Harvard and an MS in computer science from Berkeley, is most well known as the co-creator and executive producer of Futurama_, a FOX tv show set 1000 years in the future. Enter Christina Hurtado, PopSci.com's new columnist. Each Tuesday, she'll share her thoughts and observations on the ever changing interplay between science and culture._

McMasters University recently released a study showing a direct link between the amount of coverage an infectious disease receives from the media and the severity of that disease in the mind of the public. Essentially, we automatically assume the diseases we hear about on TV are much worse than the ones we don't here about, which is not always the case. During a heavily reported recent outbreak of bluetongue, for instance, I overheard a woman in a supermarket say, "I'm not buying beef right now. I don't want to get that tongue disease." Had this woman bothered to do any research, she would have discovered that she was not at all at risk of contracting bluetongue, which isn't transmissible to humans. But who cares about facts when we have 24 hour news channels with nothing better to do than to repeat the same partially-true story for hours on end?

When presented with a sample of 10 diseases, participants in the McMasters University study immediately labeled the diseases they had heard about (bird flu, anthrax, SARS) as being more dangerous than those they were less familiar with (hantavirus, yellow fever, human babesiosis). A quick Google search shows that their impressions were clearly inaccurate. In fact, when a second group was asked to rank the descriptions of the diseases without the names attached, they found that people thought the diseases they hadn't heard about on the news were actually more threatening. A final group, when exposed to both the names and the clinical descriptions of the diseases, was able to overcome the media bias, which means there's still hope for us in the glow of objective media reporting.

Of course, the study neglects the positive influences media coverage can have on the public's perception of disease. Tom Hanks courageously took on the role of AIDS-infected Andrew Beckett in the 1993 film Philedelphia. It was the first major studio film (and the second major project after the made-for-TV movie And the Band Played On) to portray an AIDS sufferer as a normal person, fighting against the prevalent stereotypes of irresponsible, hedonistic gays who "deserved" to die. The film garnered Hanks an Oscar as well as placing his character on the AFI's Best Heroes and Villains list. More importantly, it helped its audience to re-evaluate its ideas about who contracts AIDS, which has led to a broadened public understanding of the importance of safe sex practices, and to fewer stigmas about, and more compassion for, AIDS victims. Although the media can do a lot of harm and can help to spread incomplete or incorrect information (election season anyone?), Hollywood can, under the best of circumstances, also work its magic for good.