Are accurate health messages getting through?

    Young researchers at the University of Pennsylvania are taking on the ways the media and public health officials speak to us about health and our risky habits.

    Doctoral student Susan Mello wants to take a closer look at reporting on new environmental health hazards. She said given all the warnings about the chemicals in baby bottles and alerts about silent hazards at home, parents and the rest of us have a lot to sort through these days.

    “I’m really interested is whether or not journalists explain the difference between low dose and high dose,” Mello said. “With these types of environmental hazards it’s not just that a person is exposed to an environmental hazard but how much they are getting. So to say that somebody has radon in their house and their kids are being exposed may cause parents to get nervous but what they really need to understand is that they need to have their house tested to find out how much exposure they are getting.”

    Mello studies health risk communication at the Annenberg School of Communication in the University of Pennsylvania. She suspects that incomplete reporting is creating unrealistic attitudes that the only safe exposure level is zero.

    Penn colleague and fellow doctoral student Dina Shapiro is examining how public health experts engage the public. She says well-meaning experts craft messages targeted for people at high risk. In the area of HIV prevention, for instance, African Americans or gay men are often the intended audience.

    “By targeting these specific populations, I believe we actually create stereotypes that these are the only populations that are at risk for the disease,” Shapiro said. “They’ve found that the targeting doesn’t make these messages any more relevant to the populations and in fact oftentimes produces anger.”

    Shapiro and Mello’s work joins a relatively new of area of research on the ways humans make decisions.

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