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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

UNC: Researchers Say Unbalanced News Coverage of Zika Virus Highlights Need for Better Public Health Messaging

A content analysis of United States newspaper and television news coverage about the Zika virus and travel between 2016 and 2017 shows that the media failed to emphasize critical information about sexual transmission of the disease or how travelers should approach barriers to practicing Zika-prevention measures.

Ms. Mallory Wolfe Turner, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Maternal and Child Health at the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health, is co-author of the article “Zika and travel in the news: a content analysis of US news stories during the outbreak in 2016-2017,” which was published in the March 2019 issue of Public Health. Other Gillings School authors on the paper are Dr. Jim Herrington, professor in the Department of Health Behavior, and Dr. Devika Chawla, research coordinator; Dr. Sylvia Becker-Dreps, associate professor; and Dr. Lola Stamm, associate professor emeritus, all from the Department of Epidemiology.

Almost all of the examined news stories mentioned mosquito-borne transmission, but only half mentioned sexual transmission of the virus. News stories were more likely to cover Zika outcomes than symptoms, and they disproportionately covered outcomes for babies over outcomes that could affect adults. More than three quarters of news stories mentioned delaying or avoiding travel as a prevention strategy.

Overall, the analysis showed that media outlets did little to address significant barriers to practicing Zika-prevention measures, Ms. Turner said.

Public health organizations can use this study’s findings to improve communications amid public health crises in ways that might ensure comprehensive coverage and correct pervasive inaccurate information.

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