Media representations of health and scientific information have increased dramatically over recent years, resulting in television, newspapers, radio, the internet, and various other print media serving as significant and widely accessible communication and dissemination vehicles. (1) Indeed, it is well documented that the public gets the majority of its health and science information from the popular media, which also serves as an important information source for both the medical and scientific communities. (2) Numerous scholars have observed the media's influence. As noted by Steinbrook: "The public appetite for health information seems insatiable, as evidenced by the daily appearance in the news media of stories touting new medical breakthroughs, the proliferation of health - related web sites, and the growth of direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising. So important has media coverage of medical research become that many believe it sets the agenda not only for the public, but also for researchers and physicians." (3) And Bomlitz and Brezis add: "Mass media are a leading source of health information for the general public and for health professionals and their choice of coverage can ultimately drive public policy and healthcare decisions." (4)
Given the popular media's capacity to transmit information, it is not surprising that concerns regarding the accuracy and quality of media representations, and their potential to impact, for example, funding priorities, (5) policy development, (6) research direction (7) and public perceptions, (8) have been raised and subsequently explored by the academic community. While the relationship between media representations and all of these areas is undoubtedly complex (e.g., the media seems to help to shape and reflect public perceptions), there is little doubt that the media plays an important role. (9)
A recent event - AllerGen's Fifth Annual Research Conference: Innovation from Cell to Society attended by members of our team allowed further investigation of such issues, specifically through the lens of allergy and asthma research. Conference delegates were invited to take part in a survey exploring their views regarding media representations of allergy and asthma issues, policy and research and the impact such representations have on policy development, funding decisions and public opinion. (10) The intent of the survey was to investigate participants' perceptions of the accuracy and influence of media accounts without exploring the extent to which those perceptions could be considered 'correct.' The survey instrument also did not attempt to measure for potential sources of respondent bias (e.g. the frequency with which they consume popular media and whether they are selective in media reports they follow).
Given recent media coverage of allergy and asthma related research, both within and outside of Canada (see text box below) (11) the administration of the survey was viewed as being particularly timely. Respondents (48 out of a possible 187) represented a broad range of participants from this discrete scientific community including principal investigators, co-investigators, trainees, AllerGen staff members, invited guests, meeting sponsors, research partners and other attendees.
Table 1: Examples of Media Coverage of Allergy and Asthma Related Research
Maclean's: The allergy epidemic - June 5, 2006
... the global incidence of allergic diseases such as food intolerances, asthma, eczema and hay fever is going through the roof in comparatively well-to-do Western cultures, ..., we now think that between 20 and 30 per cent of the Western population is allergic to something - http://www.macleans.ca/article.jsp?content=20060605_128132_128132
CBC News: What's nuts, Chatelaine, is not to be concerned--November 10, 2009
... the hit-and-run article in its December issue is called "It's Just Nuts. …