Both legacy media, such as television and newspapers, and online social media are potentially important but incompletely understood sources of information in the face of emerging public health risks. This research aimed to understand media effects on risk perceptions and behaviors concerning the Zika virus in the United States.
We analyzed a multi-wave nationally representative survey (N = 29,062) and the volume of communications in social and legacy media (i.e., legacy media data from news sources and databases, N = 2,660 and social media data from Twitter, N = 1,605,752) in the United States between April and October 2016, dates coinciding with the early cases of local transmission of Zika in the United States (i.e., 25 weeks). The present study conducted econometric analyses (i.e., Granger causality tests) to assess the associations of legacy and social media coverage with risk perceptions and protective behaviors in the total sample and specific groups separated by pregnancy status/intent, geographic region, income, education level, age, and ethnicity.
The results from the overall sample suggested that changes in the volume of information in legacy and social media (i.e., Twitter) were followed by different changes in community risk perceptions and protective behaviors. Specifically, social media coverage correlated with the level of risk perceptions, whereas the legacy media coverage correlated with the level of protective behaviors. Analyses across different subpopulations, including those of different pregnancy status/intent, geographic Zika risk, income, education level, age, and ethnicity, replicated the social media associations with risk perceptions in most cases. However, legacy media and protective behaviors were linked only in some vulnerable subpopulations (e.g., the less-educated populations).
Understanding how media coverage relates to Zika risk perceptions and protective behaviors will help to facilitate effective risk communications by healthcare professionals and providers, particularly when a health risk emerges.