Media. It’s everywhere these days. So, it’s not surprising that it impacts our health and behaviors as well as our perception of serious public health problems.
Such influence was the topic of a Wednesday morning Annual Meeting session on “Media News Coverage of Health and Risk,” which began with a deeper look at how the media covers community violence and safety. Presenter Laura Nixon, of the Berkeley Media Studies Group, studied news coverage of community violence in California from 2013 to 2015.
She found that the kinds of community violence solutions represented in the media evolved over the years. For example, in 2013, policing was most commonly reported as a solution. But in 2014 and 2015, community prevention programs became the top solution cited in media coverage. Other solutions often covered in 2015 included gun control and challenging stereotypes about young men of color. On the topic of race and police violence, she reported that in 2013, 4 percent of articles studied discussed race, with that percentage jumping to 18 percent in 2014 and 33 percent in 2015. Also in 2013, just 1 percent of articles studied discussed police violence. That percentage jumped to 8 percent in 2014 and 14 percent in 2015.
Nixon also noted that during the study period, media stories about community violence and safety were increasingly framed through a lens of “safety from racial profiling” and the social determinants of health. Based on her findings, which were outlined in “Changing the Discourse about Community Violence,” Nixon called on advocates to talk about prevention when reporters ask about community violence, use media opinion spaces proactively and build relationships with media professionals.
Susan LoRusso, with the University of Minnesota School of Journalism, presented on another violence-related topic: suicide. In particular, LoRusso was interested in the effect that news coverage of celebrity suicides have on readers. Traditionally, she told attendees, there’s been a positive correlation between significant media coverage of a suicide and suicide rates. In particular, she said, celebrity suicide coverage can result in a greater likelihood of so-called “copycat effects” than coverage of noncelebrity suicide.
However, she said that when looking for any copycat effects in the wake Kurt Cobain’s and Robin Williams’ suicides, none popped up. Instead of seeing an uptick in suicide, the research found a dramatic increase in help-seeking calls to suicide hotlines. Similarly, LoRusso told attendees that celebrity health disclosures, like coverage of a celebrity’s cancer diagnosis, also tend to prompt people to seek out health information.
Overall, LoRusso said the volume of media coverage of a celebrity suicide predicted the volume of suicide-related information seeking — “there was this immediate pulse effect,” she noted. She encouraged reporters to stick to Recommendations for Reporting Suicide, which were developed by experts in suicide prevention, public health and journalism.
“There’s a possibility that even coverage that’s maybe not what we’d like to see might promote help-seeking…outcomes,” LoRusso said.
From traditional media to social media, Jeanine Guidry, of Virginia Commonwealth University, presented on social media trends related to the Flint drinking water crisis. She noted that while researchers often focus on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, few focus on more visual platforms like Instagram. And the distinction is important, she reminded attendees, because people process text and images very differently.
In examining 750 randomly selected tweets and 750 Instagram posts on the Flint water crisis, Guidry found that about 32 percent of tweets mentioned lead poisoning, while only 14 percent of Instagram posts did. Similarly, about 26 percent of tweets mentioned contaminated water, but only about 10 percent of Instagram posts did.
She also reported that about 52 percent of tweets studied contained an image, adding that “a picture is worth a thousand words, which helps on Twitter since we only have 140 characters.”
Overall, Guidry said tweets tended to focus on anger and fear about the Flint water crisis, while Instagram posts focused on how people could help those affected. The lesson? Design different strategies and messages for each platform.
“Like so many things, this is a call to doing better — to doing more,” Guidry said.