Examining the Role of Media Coverage and Trust in Public Health Agencies in H1N1 Influenza Prevention

By Chen, Nancy Nien-Tsu; Murphy, Sheila T. | International Public Health Journal, January 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Examining the Role of Media Coverage and Trust in Public Health Agencies in H1N1 Influenza Prevention


Chen, Nancy Nien-Tsu, Murphy, Sheila T., International Public Health Journal


Introduction

The global outbreaks of H1N1 influenza in 2009 exemplified several trends in the spread and control of emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) in the 21st century. Technological and societal changes allowed both the H1N1 flu and information about this flu to spread swiftly. Individuals were able to follow this disease's rapid development into a pandemic through round-the-clock media coverage. This paper investigates whether or not media coverage of the H1N1 flu played a role in managing the spread of H1N1 influenza in the United States. More specifically, survey data were collected and analyzed to determine if American adults' adherence to behavioral advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) during the H1N1 flu pandemic was influenced by their exposure to media coverage of this novel flu over and above key sociodemographic variables previously found to predict preventive behaviors.

Public health practitioners and researchers are paying increased attention to the potential role that the mass media could play in facilitating public understanding of EIDs and in motivating public compliance with precautionary measures recommended by public health agencies. As a consequence, the World Health Organization (WHO) and other leading health agencies have issued guidelines in recent years to help health officials work effectively with the media during public health emergencies (1,2). Researchers have also started devoting attention to the different approaches taken by public health officials and journalists in communicating the same public health emergency to the public (3,4) and the conventions employed by news organizations in covering EIDs (5,6).

However, there has been little effort to systematically examine the consequences of media coverage of EID outbreaks. Based on anecdotal evidence, some scholars have suggested that media coverage of public health emergencies tends to be detrimental to the goal of disease control because journalists have their own conventions for repackaging and reporting information from health experts, such as focusing on a single extreme case or on the number of fatalities. Consequently, media coverage of an EID may influence public perceptions and behaviors in ways unintended by public health officials (6,7). Nevertheless, public health agencies seem optimistic that appropriate strategies and guidelines can be developed to guide productive collaboration between health officials and news organizations during a health emergency. In order to empirically investigate the role of the news media during a public health emergency, this paper uses the H1N1 flu pandemic as a case study and seeks to determine whether exposure to H1N1-related media reports is associated with adherence to behavioral recommendations from public health authorities.

As the public health agency overseeing the national response to the H1N1 flu outbreaks in the United States, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended a number of preventive behaviors to the general public at the start of the 2009-2010 flu season to reduce individuals' chances of becoming infected with H1N1 influenza. Besides practicing everyday precautions, including washing one's hands with soap or using hand sanitizer more frequently and avoiding close contact with people showing flu-like symptoms, the CDC also encouraged individuals to talk to their doctor if they had any H1N1-related concerns (8). Furthermore, members of the public were asked to be vaccinated against H1N1 - a process that began in October 2009 when the vaccine became available.

Compared to the other H1N1 prevention measures recommended by the CDC, H1N1 influenza vaccination was probably the most controversial due to concerns over the safety of the relatively new and untested H1N1 flu shot as well as problems associated with delayed and unequal vaccine distribution (9-12). It is therefore of interest to investigate if the pattern of association between exposure to media reports about the pandemic flu and the intention to receive the newly-developed H1N1 vaccine differs from the pattern of association between media exposure and the adoption of more traditional preventive measures, such as more frequent hand-washing and avoiding close contact with sick individuals. …

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