Continued from Part 1
So the Ebola scare in Siaya was a false alarm. Panic over. No, wait, there was another false alarm in Murang’a too (and you wonder why I have issues with the news?) But it’s all good for now.
Believe it or not, this post was not about Ebola, or the news. I guess I just took a rather long-winded route to introduce some theories as tackled from a Health Communication perspective: health behavior and media effects theories. These theories seek to answer questions like ‘How do the media communicate risk to the public?’ and ‘What effect (wanted and unwanted) does media coverage on health issues have on public opinion and behavior?’
Health Communication is an incredibly broad field but can be defined as essentially the exchange of information between patient and health care providers via interpersonal or mass communication methods. According to the Pan American Health Organization,
“…when an outbreak or pandemic emerges, communication goals shift to focus on accompanying containment activities, ensuring that the public, in part via media, is provided health messages, supports recommendations, and that health personnel are informed, prepared and ready to act”.
Perceived as an integral part of any Public Health strategy, it is targeted at informing the public about health risks (Risk Communication, RC) and the behaviors which reduce those risks (Behavior Change Communication, BCC).
Behavior Change Communication seeks to promote positive behaviors in individuals and communities based on proven theories and models of behavior change. Meanwhile, the main goal of Risk Communication is to engage communities in discussions which help to establish a clear public understanding about potential risk outcomes and approaches to deal with risk situations. These situations are often associated with adjectives such as “high concern”, “high stress”, “emotionally charged” or “controversial”. This is where the demand side of Health Communication comes in.
The public is increasingly gaining interest in what scientists have to say about how to stay healthy, and we depend largely on what relevant information we can find from day to day in magazines, newspapers, radio, television programmes and the Internet. Because of this, the media has in some quarters become a more trusted source of health information than health providers, and the public are misdiagnosing themselves in the process, as a survey of 1,000 British women reportedly found in April this year. Perhaps this shows that the amount of health information being churned out in the media is not meeting the public’s level of health literacy. You can find a great article about why health literacy matters here.
What ideally prevents real risk communication from being another sensational bit of public information is that it communicates irregular, unfamiliar or emergency situations, and therefore requires a science-based approach, or a “profound understanding” of behavioural studies and models, as well the drugs, discoveries and other technologies introduced by science to deal with all the risks involved, and know-how in communicating scientific concepts in a lay tongue.
Below are some helpful links which provide good background knowledge about some models commonly applied in health and risk communication today:
- The Health Beliefs Model (Becker, Haefner, Kasl, et al., 1977; Becker, Haefner, & Maiman, 1977;Rosenstock, 1974)
With all this in mind, I find there are many gaps in how journalists handle their roles in health communication practice. It’s not entirely their fault; I mean, is it really possible to learn and apply behavioural theories, educate the public, as well as sell an important story, all within the average number of words used in a news article? Some key information is bound to get lost along the way. Case in point: Kenyan Press’ coverage about the Ebola outbreak in Uganda.
Out of all the 14 different news items I surveyed online about the matter, whilst they all talked about the horrific way the disease can and has killed, only two articles mentioned how miniscule the risk of becoming infected really is unless a person is in direct contact with bodily fluids of dead or living infected persons or animals. This is unfortunate for two reasons. The first and obvious reason is that withholding the good news about the “suspected outbreak” can really lead to some serious panic. The second reason is a question of trust. As we all know, trust only comes from presenting balanced information from credible sources. That means, if the media is reporting that the same politician who happens to be under investigation for embezzling public funds has said there’s no need to panic about the outbreak, well, I will panic. All in all, we need scientists, educators and communicators to interact more proactively with and in the media to give the public the service they deserve.