The mass media is a powerful tool. Think about it. Almost always, there is a newspaper vendor hawking in neighborhoods, displaying his wares at bus and train stops, a delivery boy leaving a newsletter or newspaper at your doorstep, or display cases on popular streets for passers-by to pick newspapers from. TVs and radios are ubiquitous in pretty much every corner of the world. These days, thanks to digital satellite TV, the same channels are watched by Africans in East, South and West Africa. Mass media can be used to communicate a set of messages to large groups and populations over a wide area, probably the entire world. Repeatedly. Everyone has deployed or tried to deploy this powerful tool for their purposes. It is important to understand if use of the mass media is effective since there are efforts to design new programs with mass media components, or to improve on new ones. The key points that are gleaned from understanding the use of mass media may also be applied as we begin to evaluate social media interventions.
Mass media has been the focus of several public health policies and interventions. Frequently, it is a component of a packet of interventions. We believe that mass media campaigns are able to lead to positive changes in behaviors among people of all walks of life who are exposed to the messages, or prevent negative changes. Public health interventionists have organized mass media campaigns to improve dietary practices, encourage smoking cessation, increase physical activity, encourage abstinence or use of contraceptives, prevent alcohol abuse, and prevent injuries. Examples abound. You probably know a few more.
There have been published evaluations of many of these examples. Oddly, the results have not been consistent. While some studies have reported positive outcomes in behavior change, others have reported no association. We know the results depend on the outcome of interest, the type of intervention, the nature of the message, the duration and frequency of exposure, and whether mass media interventions are supported by government policy or regulation. I will present the key findings of systematic reviews of mass media interventions in public health subsequently. They will show that mass media campaigns may successfully raise awareness about public health issues, but their impact on behavior change seems limited. By raising awareness about issues, changing the social norms in communities, they may lead to behavior change eventually.
Take away: We need to be modest and realistic about what we can hope to achieve when planning mass media campaigns to effect behavior change, bearing in mind the circumstances under which better results were seen.
References for further reading
1. Wakefield MA, Loken B, Hornik RC: Use of mass media campaigns to change health behaviour. The Lancet 2010, 376(9748):1261-1271.
2. Abioye AI, Hajifathalian K, Danaei G: Do mass media campaigns improve physical activity? a systematic review and meta-analysis. Archives of Public Health 2013, 71(1):1-10.
3. Lecouturier J, Rodgers H, Murtagh MJ, White M, Ford GA, Thomson RG: Systematic review of mass media interventions designed to improve public recognition of stroke symptoms, emergency response and early treatment. BMC Public Health, 10(1):784.
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