Mass media plays a central role in people's lives. Its importance is evident in the amount of time people spend watching television, surfing the World Wide Web, listening to music, and reading newspapers and magazines. The delivery of information through mass media is instant and available around the clock. The proliferation of communication technologies— miniature TVs, handheld radios, and personal computer companions such as Blackberry and Palm Pilot—contribute to the omnipresence of the media in daily life. More and more, a growing proportion of "life experience" is mediated through communication technologies instead of being directly experienced or witnessed. The public health community and policy makers often do not appreciate the importance and power of the media in shaping the health of the public. More importantly, media outlets or organizations do not see themselves as a part of, or contributing to the public health system. As this chapter discusses, however, the media plays a number of roles in educating the public about health issues and has a responsibility to report accurate health and science information to the public.
In this chapter, the committee examines the potential role of the media as an actor in the public health system, that is, how it can use its presence and power to lead to the mobilization of societal action that creates the conditions for health. The chapter specifically discusses how the news media can place health issues on the national public agenda and can catalyze action at the national and local levels. The chapter also addresses how advertising media, entertainment media, and the Internet provide health-related information that can reinforce or alter norms and attitudes that influence individual behavioral and societal changes. The chapter concludes with a brief discussion of the theories that help us understand the impact of the media on behavioral change and on evaluation and research issues, including the difficulties in predicting the outcomes of media campaigns. The committee recommends a number of steps that can be taken to further enhance the role of the media in improving the population's health.
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