The effect of the media

Clearly I discuss the media on here a lot, and in general they don’t come out of it too well when it comes to science reporting. But the important thing is that it really does matter – the media has a marked and measurable effect on people’s perceptions of reality. Here (in PLoS 1, so free to read) a new study shows that even medical students can be lured into thinking some diseases are worse than others simply based on how much attention they get in the press:

“Undergraduate psychology and medical students were asked to rate the severity, future prevalence and disease status of both frequently reported diseases (e.g. avian flu) and infrequently reported diseases (e.g. yellow fever). Participants considered diseases that occur frequently in the media to be more serious, and have higher disease status than those that infrequently occur in the media, even when the low media frequency conditions were considered objectively ‘worse’ by a separate group of participants.”

The media IS important and it DOES have a real effect on how people react to science and so it IS critical that we engage with the media to help them do a better job and even make them do a better job.


The Role of Medical Language in Changing Public Perceptions of Illness
Meredith E. Young, Geoffrey R. Norman, and Karin R. Humphreys

PLoS ONE. 2008; 3(12): e3875.

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