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ACADEMICS AND RESEARCH

Celebrity deaths offer health insight


By IDS Reports





The study looked at the public’s response to the death of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs in 2011, and it showed that health communicators have a short time frame for educating the public after a public figure dies.

The study surveyed 1,400 adults, both men and women. The study found that immediately after Jobs’ death, more than a third of participants searched for information on how Jobs died or cancer in general. Seven percent looked for specific information on the specific disease Jobs died from, pancreatic cancer, according to the release.

Jessica Gall Myrick is the lead author of the study and an assistant professor in the IU School of Journalism.

She said in the release that 7 percent might seem low, but it would constitute more than 2 million people in the United States who would’ve chosen to educate themselves about a specific type of cancer.

“In the medical community, there has been a big push to try to educate the public about the nuances of cancer,” Gall Myrick said in the release. “It’s not just one disease; it’s a lot of different diseases that happen to share the same label. Celebrity announcements or deaths related to cancer are a rare opportunity for public health advocates to explain the differences between cancers, and how to prevent or detect them, to a public that is otherwise not paying much attention to these details.”

Myrick co-authored the study with Seth M. Noar and Jessica Fitts Willoughby, both of whom work for the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Jennifer Brown of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Institute for Global Tobacco Control. The study is published in the Journal of Health Communication.

The study also showed racial minorities and those with less education were more likely to identify with Jobs and seek further information on pancreatic cancer after he died, according to the release.

“Because there are large racial disparities in the incidence of many cancers, much focus is on such populations,” the authors wrote in their study. “Unfortunately, the population of individuals who may need cancer education the most often seek out cancer information the least ­— especially particular low-income and racial minority populations for whom cancer is more prevalent. This makes our results fairly surprising, and it suggests that in certain contexts, cancer prevention, detection and communication efforts directed toward disparity populations may find an approach that uses relevant public figures and celebrities as useful.”

The survey found that just in the days after Jobs’ death, 97 percent of participants correctly identified pancreatic cancer as the cause of death. Thirty-six percent sought information about how Jobs died or about his disease and 17 percent had spoken on one or more occasions about pancreatic cancer, according to the release.

The results show a need for further study into how and why members of the public might identify with certain public figures, according to the release. The study might also aid health communicators in targeting specific populations with information when a public figures’ health concerns are shown in the news media.

Since more than 50 percent of participants reported hearing about Jobs’ death initially through the Internet or social media, the researchers concluded that health communicators could use tools like mobile-friendly messages to provide accurate information on cancer.

Health communicators should also see reports in popular media as an opportunity to fill gaps in news coverage about both disease risks and prevention, according to the release.

“More people will see a story about Steve Jobs or Patrick Swayze’s battles with pancreatic cancer in People magazine than will read a long, scientific piece on the disease in The New York Times,” Gall Myrick said in the release. “Health communicators need to act quickly to educate the public when interest and motivation are at their peak so that more lives can be saved.”     

Kathrine Schulze

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