The last subunit of this program is dedicated to the influence of media on outbreaks of diseases. As quickly as an emerging infectious disease can spread, panic and hysteria can spread just as quickly. Many students might remember the avian flu or the swine flu hysteria. It seemed like a constant media blast covering outbreaks and spread of the disease, in addition to the death toll. More recently, there has been frequent news coverage of the MERS outbreak and the new Ebola outbreak in Africa.
And, just like the diseases that they cover, these media reports can spread panic. In a recent document released by the Office of Transnational Issues evaluating the containment and control of the SARS outbreak, the media was contributed to increasing the transmission of diseases and inhibiting effective quarantine. This is especially true with sensationalist media reporting and reports that contain rumors and speculation.
Media coverage of an outbreak may increase the perceived threat, especially if significant airtime is dedicated to the disease. In two separate studies, readers rated the seriousness of diseases and other epidemiological factors.
Diseases that were highly represented in the media were rated as more severe than diseases that were not as often portrayed. In addition, the participants felt that the diseases that were more often discussed in media posed a higher risk to their communities.
In a follow up experiment, the diseases were stripped of their names and were presented as a list of symptoms. In this follow up experiment, participants usually rated the less discussed diseases as being more severe—demonstrating that media influence heavily swayed perception of diseases.
In one study, social media was used as a resource to increase information spread within social circles without initiating physical contact. This Information Dissemination Network can help to inhibit the spread of disease while also allowing for those who are sick to reach out for assistance.
Scoglio, one of the members of the team, also indicated that people may be more willing to follow advice from individuals they trust rather than impersonal news broadcasts.
Recommended teaching for this subunit include exposing students to different forms of media—newspaper clippings, online articles, and even television news reports—and having students analyze the tone of the broadcasts. They can decide if the media piece is providing valuable information to the public and if they are presenting the information in a tone that is unbiased and collected. Students can also hold a debate about the effectiveness of media in assisting disease containment.