Fowler on the Effects of Politicization of Vaccines in the Media

Erika Franklin Fowler is co-director of The Wesleyan Media Project.

Erika Franklin Fowler is also co-director of The Wesleyan Media Project.

As controversy over the measles vaccine continues to grow, and prominent politicians weigh in with their views, Assistant Professor of Government Erika Franklin Fowler writes in The Washington Post’s “Monkey Cage” blog about the dangerous consequences that politicization of vaccine issues in the news media can have on public support for vaccines in general.

In an article co-authored with with Sarah Gollust ’01, now an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health, Fowler considers the the 2009 dust-up over mammography screening recommendations, and the 2006-07 debate over whether to require girls to get the HPV vaccine. Though neither started out as controversial, “once the news media highlighted political sources or partisan conflict about these issues, future news coverage continued to reflect this politicization — even as news coverage of these issues tapered off,” they write. That is, the “political firestorm” continued long after the original issue faded.

Moreover, Fowler and Gollust write that politicized media coverage was associated with lower support for requiring the HPV vaccine, as evidenced in a survey of respondents’ attitudes and media coverage in their states. They also conducted an experiment in which people were exposed to brief news excerpts discussing the debate over requiring HPV vaccines. For people who were less likely to have previously encountered news stories about the HPV vaccine controversy, reading about political conflict over the issue decreased support for vaccines in general, and decreased trust in doctors.

“This suggests a very troubling implication: media coverage of the controversy about the measles vaccine could actually affect the general public beyond the very small ‘anti-vax’ community,” they write. “But our research also suggests a way for news coverage to avoid this. We found that news coverage that did not emphasize conflict was associated with increased support for both the HPV vaccine and immunization programs generally. This shows how news media could bolster support for needed vaccinations: steer clear of the political controversy.”

Fowler and Gollust also wrote about their findings in a brief for the Scholars Strategy Network (SSN).