The suicide of Robin Williams is just the latest example of a celebrity’s actions raising the discussion to national attention.
Jessica Gall Myrick, a communications professor at Indiana University, explores the nature of celebrity influence over the population especially in terms of medical conditions.
Jessica Gall Myrick received her Ph.D. in Mass Communication and a certificate in Interdisciplinary Health Communication from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (2013). Her research examines the impact of emotions on media processes and effects, with an emphasis on how media use can lead to beneficial and prosocial outcomes. Previously Gall Myrick worked as a multiplatform reporter and producer and as a magazine writer and columnist. Gall Myrick also previously served as the director of experiential education and recruitment for the Indiana University School of Journalism. She holds a B.A. (Political Science, 2005) and an M.A. (Journalism, 2007) from Indiana University. While studying at IU, Gall Myrick was an All-American track and cross country athlete for the Hoosiers.
From athletes’ injuries to movie stars’ cancer diagnoses, celebrities commonly appear in health news stories. Coverage of their diagnoses and deaths have been shown to impact our own behavior. For example, when the media reported on President Ronald Reagan’s colon cancer diagnosis in Nineteen-Eighty-Five, calls to the National Cancer Institute about the disease increased four-fold.
Why do public figures have such a pull on our health behavior, often more so than medical experts? Research suggests that our constant exposure to celebrities via the media results in subtle but strong emotional bonds between us and them. Celebrities become our Facebook friends and then start to feel like our real friends. We see them more often than some of our own family members. When we hear news of a celebrity with cancer, it seems like someone we personally know has just been diagnosed.
We don’t realize the power of these bonds until such events occur. Then, intense media coverage focuses our attention on the condition in ways that typical health stories could not. This combination of pre-existing emotional ties with celebrities plus heavy media coverage and anxiety about one’s own risk of the health threat spurs many of us to take action.
Even when celebrities don’t publicly discuss their health, news coverage of their medical conditions can influence us. Our research group found that the two-thousand-eleven death of Apple founder Steve Jobs’ led many people to talk about pancreatic cancer. More than a third of the participants in our survey also sought information about pancreatic cancer. Those who felt sad or worried after Jobs’ death were more likely to talk about cancer and search for information than were those with weaker emotional reactions.
Many assume that emotions lead to unwise behavior. However, emotions can get us off the couch. Heavy news coverage of celebrity health can motivate people to do what they long knew they should have been doing but just hadn’t had the motivation until it popped up in their twitter feed.