The unprecedented scale of the Ebola outbreak that began in 2014 led not only to the inevitable frantic media coverage, both good and bad, but also to a meta-conversation about health media, whether it’s good or bad, responsible or irresponsible, scientific or sensationalist.
Did the media overreact to the outbreak when cases appeared in the United States? Did journalists help fuel panic? Did the media overreact about the level of panic the media was actually causing? And so on and so on, in a dizzying ouroboros of analysis.
Through all of this, it’s hard to know what people are actually taking away from the articles they read and the news broadcasts they see. In a new study, researchers at Princeton University investigated how at-risk people feel after learning about a disease, and how that is linked to what information they remember about it.
A group of 460 participants read an article about meningococcal disease with information about its symptoms (“severe headaches that have a rapid onset,” “uncomfortable and painful stiff neck,” “sensitivity to natural and artificial light,” and “a skin rash that could cover the whole body”) as well as risk factors, preventive steps to take, and how it’s diagnosed. Some people also read an article emphasizing that only one in 100,000 people in the U.S. gets the disease each year, while some read an article that emphasized that the mortality rate could be as high as 40 percent. The latter article, while providing mostly the same information on symptoms and such as the first, was designed to make people feel more at-risk.