Clinicians, medical and public health researchers, and communication scholars alike have long been concerned about the effects of conflicting health messages in the broader public information environment. Not only have these messages been referred to in many ways (e.g., “competing,” “contradictory,” “inconsistent,” “mixed,” “divergent”), but they have been conceptualized in distinct ways as well—perhaps because they have been the subject of study across health, science, and political communication domains. Regardless of specific terminology and definitions, the concerns have been consistent throughout: conflicting health messages exist in the broader environment, they are noticed by the public, and they impact public understanding and health behavior. Yet until recently, the scientific evidence base to substantiate these concerns has been remarkably thin. In the past few years, there has been a growing body of rigorous empirical research documenting the prevalence of conflicting health messages in the media environment. There is also increasing evidence that people perceive conflict and controversy about several health topics, including nutrition and cancer screening. Although historically most studies have stopped short of systematically capturing exposure to conflicting health messages—which is the all-important first step in demonstrating effects—there have been some recent efforts here. Taken together, a set of qualitative (focus group) and quantitative (observational survey and experimental) studies, guided by diverse theoretical frameworks, now provides compelling evidence that there are adverse outcomes of exposure to conflicting health information. The origins of such information vary, but understanding epidemiology and the nature of scientific discovery—as well as how science and health news is produced and understood by the public—helps to shed light on how conflicting health messages arise. As evidence of the effects of conflicting messages accumulates, it is important to consider not just the implications of such messages for health and risk communication, but also whether and how we can intervene to address the effects of exposure to message conflict.
Rebekah H. Nagler and Susan M. LoRusso
Mia Liza A. Lustria
In today’s saturated media environment, it is incumbent for designers of health education materials to find more effective and efficient ways of capturing the attention of the public, particularly when the intent is to influence individual behavior change. Tailoring is a message design strategy that has been shown to amplify the effectiveness of health messages at an individual level. It is a data-driven and theory-informed strategy for crafting a message using knowledge of various factors that might influence the individual’s responsiveness to the message, such as their information needs, beliefs, motivations, and health behaviors. It also enhances the persuasiveness of a message by increasing its perceived relevance, drawing attention to the message, and encouraging deeper elaboration of the information. Tailoring content based on known antecedents of the intended behavioral outcomes has been shown to enhance tailoring effectiveness. Compared to generic messages, tailored messages are perceived to be more personally relevant, command greater attention, are recalled more readily, and encourage more positive evaluations of the information overall. Various meta-analyses have demonstrated the effectiveness of tailored interventions promoting a number of health behaviors, such as smoking cessation, healthy diet and nutrition, physical activity, and regular recommended health screenings. Advances in information and communication technologies have led to more sophisticated, multimodal tailored interventions with improved reach, and more powerful expert systems and data analysis models. Web technologies have made it possible to scale the production and delivery of tailored messages to multiple individuals at relatively low cost and to improve access to expert feedback, particularly among hard-to-reach population groups.
Mart Ots and Robert G. Picard
Due to its function as a watchdog or fourth estate in democratic societies and a variety of commercial challenges, policy-makers have undertaken initiatives to support the production and distribution of news. Press subsidies are one such policy initiative that particularly aims to provide support to private news producers. Paid as direct cash handouts or indirect reduced taxes and fees, they exist in some form in almost every country in the world. Subsidies are not uncontroversial, their effectiveness is unclear, and their magnitude, designs, and areas of application, differ across nations and their unique economic, cultural, and political contexts. After periods of declining political and public interest in media subsidies, the recent economic crisis of journalism, and the rising influence of various forms of click-bait, fake, native, or biased news on social media platforms, has brought state support of original journalism back on the agenda.
Public service announcements (PSAs) emerged after World War II in the United States as a promising strategy for increasing awareness of important social issues and changing beliefs, attitudes, and behavior. Research at that time showed that PSA campaigns had limited success in changing attitudes and behavior. Even so, both in the U.S. and internationally, sponsoring agencies and organizations continued to produce PSAs, hoping they would create significant behavior change. In the 1980s, a more informed view of what PSAs can achieve began to emerge as practitioners of social marketing demonstrated that media campaigns can produce behavior change when they are designed and executed according to the principles and best practices followed by the advertising industry. Beginning in the 1990s, PSA-based campaigns to promote public action through programs and policy change became more common. Research has shown that such campaigns can play a key role in shaping the public agenda, changing perceptions of social norms, reinforcing school- and community-based programs, and building support for and then publicizing changes in public policy, all of which can foster individual behavior change. PSAs and other media executions are best designed using a planning scheme that is grounded in advertising best practices and behavior change theory and that uses those media executions as part of a broader intervention effort. These various elements can be brought together by using a media planning guide that outlines how the campaign will work in sync with other intervention activities and what its key messages will be. In the United States, federal regulations that outlined broadcasters’ public service obligations were loosened in the 1980s, making it increasingly difficult to get donated time for PSAs and other public service messages. More broadly, the increased focus of broadcasters, cable networks, and print publications on generating revenue has magnified this problem. Faced with strong competition, campaign planners need a strategy for convincing media gatekeepers to give priority to their messaging. The rise of social media (e.g., Facebook, Instagram, Twitter) has opened up a new means of putting PSAs before the public. For example, once a message is posted on a video-sharing website such as YouTube, it can be linked to the sponsoring organization’s website, where additional intervention-related material can be found, as well as to websites hosted by other groups. Promotional efforts through national, state, and community organizations can draw an initial audience, with the hope that they will share the link with their social media and email contacts and that eventually the message will “go viral.” PSAs remain a viable media alternative for public communication campaigns, despite the fact that major media outlets do not often provide donated time or space for such advertising. In some cases, a PSA-driven campaign will be supported by a large budget, but while such campaigns have a better chance of success, the resources required are seldom available. The emergence of social media has created a new way to build an audience. Successful examples of social media campaigns are emerging, but why some campaigns take off and others do not requires additional study.