Medicine in the popular press: the influence of the media on perceptions of disease

PLoS One. 2008;3(10):e3552. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0003552. Epub 2008 Oct 29.


In an age of increasing globalization and discussion of the possibility of global pandemics, increasing rates of reporting of these events may influence public perception of risk. The present studies investigate the impact of high levels of media reporting on the perceptions of disease. Undergraduate psychology and medical students were asked to rate the severity, future prevalence and disease status of both frequently reported diseases (e.g. avian flu) and infrequently reported diseases (e.g. yellow fever). Participants considered diseases that occur frequently in the media to be more serious, and have higher disease status than those that infrequently occur in the media, even when the low media frequency conditions were considered objectively 'worse' by a separate group of participants. Estimates of severity also positively correlated with popular print media frequency in both student populations. However, we also see that the concurrent presentation of objective information about the diseases can mitigate this effect. It is clear from these data that the media can bias our perceptions of disease.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Disease / etiology
  • Disease / psychology*
  • Education, Medical, Undergraduate
  • Educational Status
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mass Media*
  • Medicine*
  • Research Design
  • Social Perception*
  • Young Adult