Are viral fear tactics just media hype?

When you think of getting a virus it instills fear, this is largely due to how the media portrays them.

Dr. Penelope Ironstone, associate professor of Communications Studies at Laurier, has started looking into the idea of the portrayal of viruses and diseases in the media.

While completing her degree Ironstone gained an interest and noticed that people behaved a certain way when they thought they were in danger. This appears frequently in the media.

“Try and understand how it is that the representation [of disease in the media] … influences the ways we respond to disease outbreaks, [and] to the threat of a disease outbreaks. It doesn’t even have to be a real one, it could be an imagined one,” said Ironstone

She first looked at the panic through different flu epidemics in 1918 and 1919, as well as the panic related to HIV/AIDS. She decided to look at something “less spectacular” and just focus on the influenza virus, commonly referred to as the flu.

Ironstone zoned in on media analysis, which she says consists of “taking a look at the language people were using and making evaluations or assessments of the way people were responding. [For example] when H1N1 hit, one of the things I noticed was that there was a tremendous amount of panic that was being generated,” said Ironstone.

When people expect to panic about something that may happen to them, the phenomenon occurring is what Ironstone refers to as “anticipatory anxiety.”

Ironstone also believes that people can react in one of two ways: they either think they won’t get sick because they never get sick, or believe they are already contaminated.

The media has a very strong influence on the minds of people, according to Ironstone. It influences the public not only through newspapers and magazines but also through advertisements.

“You can actually see this in the language that is being used and the ways in which it seemed it was a journalistic discourse. The first thing was panic, panic, panic, and the second thing was: calm everybody down,” said Ironstone.

“The ads that are most successful are the ones that involve children. It’s that sense of responsibility to children,” said Ironstone.

“It can scare people. It can produce psychological effects where people sort of do the: ‘not me, not here, not now’ thing,” said Ironstone in regards to how people act when they come in contact with a virus scare. People feel that if they never get sick, the virus won’t hurt them. They also feel that deadly viruses are never near them and must be somewhere else in the world, or that in today’s time there are too many vaccines to take care of deathly diseases.

When asked if there is possible motive to scare people into thinking they can get sick so they will buy medications, Ironstone stated that there may not be a direct correlation. However, in 2009, the year of swine flu epidemic, Johnson and Johnson’s hand sanitizer profits went “through the roof”.

Ironstone explained people may also have an issue in trusting the science behind vaccines including the flu shot.

“[There is a] lack of trust in the information you are getting. [The vaccine] might seem like it’s scientifically sound, but we don’t trust science, because science has produced some pretty negative side effects in the past,” said Ironstone in regards to how people perceive medicinal vaccines.

People fear that in this day and age they are more likely to get sick because people are more mobile and free.

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