Viewpoint: Mainstream media reports on disease outbreaks lack crucial information

Health organizations are obligated to contribute accurate and timely information to the general public, but the bulk of this information comes from social media and does not help people make informed health decisions, wrote Yotam Ophir, PhD, the Joan Bossert Postdoctoral Fellow in Science Communication at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communication in Philadelphia, in an op-ed for Science Alert.

Here are five things to know:

1. For a recent study, Dr. Ophir analyzing 5,006 news articles on swine flu, Ebola and Zika virus published by news outlets such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal over the past 10 years. He sought to assess coverage patterns among infectious disease news reports.

2. The analysis identified three common elements among the news coverage:

  • Scientific information, which focused on health risks and medical facts
  • Social stories, which outlined an outbreak's effect on markets, politics and cultural events
  • Pandemic coverage, which highlighted efforts to prevent disease outbreaks from spreading to the U.S.

3. The author found about half of the coverage explored the social consequences of diseases, "such as their effect on the economy, politicians or athletes," Dr. Ophir wrote. 

4. He also found 1 in 5 articles included preventative steps to avoid infection. Most of these fell under the scientific article category. About 1 in 8 pandemic articles included preventative steps. None of the 120 social articles included practical health-related information.

"The fact that different articles focus on different aspects is not problematic by itself. People could still collect bits of information from different sources," Dr. Ophir wrote. "But no matter which articles people read, there was a good chance for them to miss some important information."

5. The author urges health organizations like the CDC to supplement information gaps in mainstream media articles with additional information on ways Americans can protect themselves and their health during an infectious disease outbreak.

More articles on clinical leadership and infection control: 

Health websites riddled with false info about preeclampsia, ProPublica finds
HAIs take an emotional toll on patients
Michigan biotech looks to freeze organs for future transplants

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