It should come as no surprise that media coverage greatly influences how people perceive the threat of infectious diseases. Various government and academic groups have studied the media’s influence on perceived threats of disease and viral outbreaks for some time as perception and reality can determine whether a virus causes widespread panic, or changes behaviors to mitigate risk.
Ask the average person about the risks associated with two different diseases and the one with the most media exposure will always perceive the risk as more threatening, whether or not that threat is real. Take the Zika virus for example.
The perceived view — gained through media “reports” — that Zika cannot be “contained” is the key driver in how people respond to the disease. For example, while influenza may affect and kill millions every year, the perception that it can be contained, i.e., via flu shots, vaccinations, viral medicines, rest, fluids, etc. makes it a relatively minor disease, at least from a media perspective. Versus Zika, which has horrendous health implications, but is not nearly as prevalent in the human population.
But Zika’s lack of “containment” drives media coverage. In some ways it’s more about the size of the threat than the risk of the threat that piques media interest.
Here’s the dramatic media trend around Zika coverage:
For the February media cycle, Zika storylines advanced +6 points to a new rating high of 96, representing nearly 17.7 million media mentions across global news channels. Apparently the disease didn’t receive much coverage prior to 2015. Even at a 96 rating, storylines about the Zika virus are still surging in the media. The disease is receiving universal coverage across every media segment.
So … what does measuring the media visibility of a disease have to do with anything? After all, regardless of media attention, this is a serious health problem. Whether Zika is truly a threat to a wider segment of society is up to the experts at the CDC, WHO, and other global health organizations.
But a key element in responding to a disease is how to inform and educate the affected population. Where and how the media covers Zika, and the hundreds of other health and environmental threats impacting society, is another tool in the effort to improve society’s response to these invading viral threats. Media metrics simply help to quantify and provide perspective on the media’s role in informing society about these viral disease threats, and hopefully what health and government official are doing to combat the virus and disease itself.