The Broadcast Monitoring Blog

Managing Public Perception in the Controversy Over the Measles Outbreak

Since early January, more than 150 cases of measles have been reported in the United States. Measles was declared eradicated in 2000, so the outbreak has raised concerns among health officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, doctors, parents, schools, and the public in general. Thus, this is a major news story in every national and local media outlet.

But this public health issue also isn’t without controversy.

Most of those who came down with the measles were unvaccinated, putting the media spotlight on the anti-vaccination movement and the families who choose not to vaccinate their children.

The seriousness of the health threat and the ensuing controversy have generated a significant increase in broadcast news reports on the topic. Since the outbreak was announced on Jan. 7, there have been more than 50,500 mentions of it on broadcast news, and a surge in discussion about vaccinations. During the first week of January, there were just 678 TV news clips that mentioned vaccinations. But after the outbreak, that number climbed to more than 31,000 by the end of February.

For the CDC and state health officials around the country, keeping up with the proliferating broadcasts and reacting when required is challenging, but very essential to halting the outbreak. Vaccine manufacturers also must be attuned to the conversation so they can manage both financial and reputational risk effectively. Activists have an interest in what’s reported because they want to advance their cause.

The task is complicated not only by the increase in coverage, but also because television is highly influential. This significantly raises the stakes for everyone involved.

Broadcast news coverage has included interviews with health officials, parents who have chosen not to vaccinate their children – and parents who have, school officials, and pediatricians. In addition to covering the details of the outbreak and its cause, reporters have examined the history of the anti-vaccination movement; the reasons parents might choose not to vaccinate their children, and the repercussions of the outbreak, including new school vaccination requirements.

Yet there can be great variation in what is reported or how information is presented. Each local market has its own twist on the story, as local officials and school districts react to new cases. And the perceived credibility of spokespeople can influence actions viewers take.

For example, a segment on vaccination rates by a local NBC news affiliate in Richmond, Va., began with an interview of a mother who had not vaccinated her children. When asked about her choice, the mother responded, “There is no proof it works.” The report that follows lays out a strong argument for vaccination, with interviews of health officials telling a different story: that the high vaccination rate in Virginia has kept the cases of measles in the state low.

However, in Cincinnati, Ohio, another local NBC news affiliate began a similar segment noting that local doctors and parents were concerned about the measles outbreak. The broadcast uses a different approach, leading with comments from a mother who strongly supports vaccination. She tells the reporter: “I would like to see them all get vaccinated.” This time, there is no spokesperson from the anti-vaccine movement.

The differences may be subtle, but the outcomes could be different. Despite the substantial pro-vaccine information presented in the Richmond segment, some viewers might be influenced by the placement of the mother’s interview at the start of the segment. They may also find her to be more credible than the health experts interviewed. In either case, this report could complicate the job of the CDC and local health officials. Likewise, anti-vaccine activists might seek to balance the Cincinnati segment by reaching out to the reporter.

Broadcast news reaches nearly every household in America, and 69% of Americans rely on TV as their main source of news. For health officials, vaccine manufacturers, and activists, monitoring the broadcasts is a critical public safety measure and a necessary tool for managing reputation and risk.

And this isn’t easily done using Google. Most broadcast content isn’t available on the Web, and even if it is, the broadcaster might not post it soon after broadcast. This delay can make it difficult for health officials, vaccine manufacturers, and activists to stop misinformation before it’s widely spread.

By tracking broadcast news on a service like TVEyes, stakeholders can react quickly to inaccurate reports or take steps fill gaps in coverage. This helps them better manage public perception – and achieve their goals.

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