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Communication Breakdown? – The Roles Of The Media And Public Health Officials During Public Health Crises

Australian media coverage of the – especially the efficiency or otherwise of the flow of information from to – is the subject of three articles published in the 19 November issue of the Medical Journal of Australia.

, Occupational Psychologist at the School of Medicine, , and her co-authors used data collected from telephone surveys of the general public, before and after the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic, to determine changes in threat perception and anticipated compliance with health-protective behaviours in response to a future pandemic.

The study found a large increase in the proportion of people who believed a pandemic was highly likely to occur in the future, but a decrease in the proportion who thought they would be directly affected and a slight decrease in willingness to be vaccinated. Dr Taylor said that their study found there had been significant shifts in public threat perception and anticipated response to a future pandemic.

“The 2009 H1N1 pandemic altered public perceptions of the probability of a pandemic in the future, but has left the public feeling less vulnerable,” Dr Taylor says. “Shifts in perception have the potential to reduce future public compliance with health-protective measures, including critical elements of the public health response, such as vaccination. “Follow-up research is needed to determine whether the 2009 pandemic has resulted in enduring public perceptions that might constrain the desired public response during the next pandemic, and to ensure that the current interpandemic phase is used to inform the next pandemic response.”

Adjunct Senior Lecturer Melissa Sweet, from the , University of Sydney, and her co-authors write that good working relationships with journalists are needed during public health crises.

They say that governments should consider how journalists’ perspectives can help to refine and shape public health communication practices when developing media strategies for public health crises such as the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic. “Despite the intensive and sustained media coverage the 2009 pandemic received, journalists were not consulted as part of the Australian Government’s review of the response to the pandemic,” Ms Sweet says.

“Formal debriefings with journalists after major public health events would be useful for informing policy and communication strategies.” In a third article on this topic, Dr Craig Dalton, Public Health Physician and Conjoint Senior Lecturer in the School of Medical Practice and Public Health, University of Newcastle (NSW), argues that the ‘shadow roles’ of journalists and public health officials will inevitably bring them into conflict over the reporting of public health crises.

Dr Dalton says that, as well as providing information to the public, journalists must also generate ‘entertainment value’ in the form of contradiction, controversy, sensationalism, and tragedies in order to enhance advertising and shareholder revenue for their employers.

This, he says, brings them into direct conflict with public health officials, whose shadow role is to minimise the political risks of the elected branch of government. “Uncertainty, controversy, and imperfections in policy and response are intolerable to Western governments seeking to manage ‘issues’,” says Dr Dalton.


Medical Journal of Australia