Our reliance on the media, in all its forms, is heightened in times of crisis, especially those of public health and disease. A recent literature review published in the APA’s Health Psychology journal looked at trends in public behavior as a response to media coverage of the current and past crises, some of which are deleterious to public health. There are several general trends worth examining.
First, the authors note that the “public depends on the media to convey accurate and up-to-date information in order to make informed decisions,” and that during such times, the “public may increase their reliance on media.” Depending on the quality and flow of information, two things can happen. People may form an accurate perception of risk, in which case they are less likely to engage in dangerous behavior like consumer hoarding, and less likely to experience negative emotions like anxiety, depression and distress.
The alternative outcome is highlighted in the study, which looked at responses to similar health crises, like H1N1, school shootings, and bombings. As has been demonstrated by public reaction to the COVID-19 virus, the proliferation of misinformation, disproportionate exposure to sensationalist or graphic news (both voluntarily and because it can be difficult to avoid), and ambiguity in the news can all result in risky behavior and negative affect.
More specifically, ambiguity during the H1N1 crisis was found to increase feelings of loss of control and anxiety. Because people tend to perceive novel viral threats as more dangerous than familiar ones, ambiguity around new diseases is a particularly powerful trigger. Furthermore, following the Boston Marathon bombings, increased media exposure was positively correlated with acute stress, such that those who reported the highest media exposure reported the highest levels of stress.
Thus, despite the best efforts of official sources like the CDC and WHO, a chaotic and saturated media environment has led to the kinds of behavior that put both the public and healthcare workers at greater risk, such as a global shortage of face masks and respirators, and widespread increases in depression and anxiety symptoms.
The authors repeatedly stress the importance of both conveying and consuming accurate and up-to-date information. The responsibility lies both with the media and the general public, and adhering to best practices will help curb the impact of COVID-19 and hasten its conclusion.
The article, “The Novel Coronavirus (COVID-2019) Outbreak: Amplification of Public Health Consequences by Media Exposure“, was authored by Dana Rose Garfin, Roxane Cohen Silver, and E. Alison Holman.