|Risk communication is the final part of a process which leads the
decision-maker to determine whether a particular risk is acceptable or
not and to adopt preventive behaviors . Along this process massmedia
play a crucial role in shaping citizens’ opinions and attitudes.
When reporting public health risks (such as foodborne diseases, influenza,
anthropozoonosis,...) to the general reader, mass-media try to
translate expert knowledge in a clear and understandable way. In general,
a proper communication of health-related issues requires a careful
verification of the source, a detailed and complete report of facts and a
clear presentation of different interpretations of facts.
|However, research suggests that journalists are often unprepared to
cover health-related topics, mainly because they lack of adequate expertise
in medicine and are not properly trained in science reporting
. Catastrophic assumptions and frightening tones are quite common
when health-related news are reported. Such communication strategy
responds to the needs of news-making: the acute phase of an emergency
is highlighted because the extra-ordinary event moves audience
emotions, captures its attention and stimulates the search of confirmatory
|When the press gets it wrong on science, the results can be devastating.
Those communication strategies which are mainly oriented
to stress the emotional impact of news, typically increase audience’s
concern and may also change its attitudes. In Europe, for example,
H1N1 flu was presented by mass-media under a scaring light; terms
as “pandemic”, “peak”, “deaths”, and “alarm” have frequently appeared
in newspapers’ headlines for several weeks. Miscommunication did
amplify citizens’ concerns and stimulate excessive reassurance seeking.
It is worth remembering that H1N1 flu was not an emergency
but an “object of surveillance“, which represents the normal reaction
of an efficient Health System. All the initiatives taken by the European
Countries to face H1N1 flu represented a jointed preventive strategy,
but were erroneously interpreted as alarms. Other examples of massmedia
miscommunication come from occupational medicine. Again in
Europe, the recent diffusion of new regulations on workplace safety has
moved mass-media‘s interest to work accidents. A recent Italian work
highlighted the role of print media in shaping a social representation
of work safety . After analyzing more than two-hundred print articles
published in the main national newspapers, authors concluded
that print media were accurate in reporting news, but they not served
as source of education in work safety-related issues. Information was
mainly focused on single catastrophic events, such as tragedies on work
place, which were repeatedly presented by different media in a limited
time window. The frequency and relevance of news significantly
decreased along time. This flooding of news enhanced citizen’s diffidence
and insecurity towards public institutions. A semantic analysis of
newspaper’s headlines revealed a massive use of dramatic terms, which
easily induce a negative arousal in the readers, while very few articles
contained a critical discussion of methods and operational proposal to
improve workplace safety.
|Health literacy is full of similar examples. This suggests to apply
the highest standards of journalism when the public interest is involved.
Today, there is an increasing agreement among medical journalists on the basics of good medical science reporting. Some guidelines have
been discussed in international meetings and draft by several medical
journalists’ associations. However, good practices are still far to be
applied. An ideal check-list should incorporate the basic principles of
medical science reporting with the journalist’s code of ethics. Health
communication should adhere to the principle of beneficence, non-maleficience,
respect for personal autonomy, and justice; sources should be
checked for reputation of the individual and reliability; reports should
be accurate, clear, accountable, but not necessary exhaustive; presentation
of new research should include the sample size and highlight if the
sample is large enough to draw general conclusions; when presenting
new findings from a clinical trial with relevant implication for health,
the stage of the study should be emphasized to understand the realistic
time frame for the work’s translation into a treatment or cure; any increase
in risk should be reported in absolute terms as well as percentages;
case stories and shocking findings should include the wider context;
contrasting opinions and viewpoints from different experts should be
|Some researchers have also proposed practical solutions to improve
communication between scientists and journalists, such as sharing
of informational resources, scenario exercise, and raising awareness at
professional trade meetings . Other attempts to improve health-news
reporting come from the “One medicine approach”. This concept is defined
as the collaborative efforts of multiple disciplines, working locally,
nationally and globally, to reach optimal health for people, animal and
the environment . This means that a focused collaboration between
medical experts and mass-media should be strongly recommended
when health-related issues are divulged.
- MacDiarmid SC, Pharo HJ (2003) Risk analysis: assessment, management and communication. Rev Sci Tech 22: 397-408.
- Lowrey W, Evans W, Gower KK, Robinson JA, Ginter PM, et al. (2007) Abdolrasulnia M. Effective media communication of disasters: pressing problems and recommendations. BMC Public Health 7: 97.
- Cecaro M, Bernardini M, Isolani L, Passamonti C (2010) Occupational medicine and communication: which role for print media? G Ital Med Lav Ergon 32: 228-230.
- Strasser T, Gallagher J (1994) The ethics of health communication. World Health Forum. 15: 175-177.
- King L (2008) One world, one health. Proceedings of the 2008 World Veterinary Congress; 1-9.Lewis HB. One world, one health, one medicine: from the perspective of companion animal practice. Proceedings of the 2008 World Veterinary Congress 10-16.