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“Panic in the Streets”: Historical Reflections on Fear-based Media Messaging During Acute Public Health Crises


On February 1st, Nancy Tomes delivered a lecture on fear-based media messaging during acute public health crises. She is a distinguished historian, author, and professor at Stony Brook University. The presentation began with a history of what Tomes refers to as the “panic problem” in American public health practice to stimulate a discussion of the following questions: how do we motivate people to act in a public health crisis without inducing some degree of fear? Is there a place for healthy fear in public health messaging today, and if so, what would it look like?”.

The public health approach in the first half of the 20th century focused primarily on the prevention of outbreaks, instead of informing the public, because leaders hoped to avoid relying on the masses in an emergency. When the second half of the 20th century rolled around, this approach began to fail as technology advanced. Cities became connected by ships and trains, making outbreaks more difficult to contain. Panic became a central issue in public health because people could flee the site of an outbreak and bring the pathogen with them to other locations. These procedural revisions were effective in decreasing infection rates for the white majority, but they were harmful for other groups of people. This top-down model demonstrated a low opinion of those outside the population of straight, white, educated males, and it endorsed problematic viewpoints that persist today. Stigmatization and scapegoating in mass media is counterproductive to addressing public health crises. Regarding this issue, Tomes states that addressing discrimination is critical to resolving issues in mass communication, for bias exists within both the media and the scientific community.

After World War II, the field of health communication became professionalized and started depicting risk assessment using probability. Furthermore, the rise of the “responsible press” has posed ample concerns regarding the promotion of objectivity and accountability in the mass media. The combined efforts of text-based media, broadcast media, and digital media have made rapid widespread communication possible. This increases public knowledge and awareness, but it can also incorporate fear messaging and/or result in miscommunication. Fear messaging can then cause stigma and scapegoating, which exacerbates panic. To further emphasize the significance of this potential domino effect, Tomes pays homage to the 1950 film, Panic in the Streets. With this, she describes the emerging tension between the people’s rights to information and the prevention of panic. She introduces the term “infodemic,” or the rapid spread of both accurate and inaccurate information that creates difficulty in learning critical information about an issue. This phenomenon was apparent during the Covid-19 pandemic, as large amounts of information was disseminated by mass media channels such as television and social media. Tomes discussed how both overreactions and underreactions (the over/under problem) to public health crises can be harmful, citing the Zika, Ebola, HIV, and Covid outbreaks as examples of this issue. During the HIV/AIDs outbreak, the alternative press that served the LGBTQ-IA community reported on the epidemic from the beginning, but the mainstream media failed to do so until the death toll rose. This was due to the stigma surrounding sex work and IV drug use, as well as the prevalence of homophobia, sexism, and racism.

Tomes states that the way forward is not to eliminate fear, but to pay close attention to it. She says we should take recent neuroscience research into account when addressing the public, rather than only relying on data to get the message across. There are complex interactions between the various values, opinions, and political beliefs held by individuals across the nation; therefore, the same messaging will not be effective in appealing and educating everyone. Tomes states that it is critical to establish community networks that can be relied upon during times of crisis to disseminate information appropriately. Tomes proposes that funding be directed towards communication technology and surveillance measures. There are issues involving both media outlets and the public health staff that facilitate risk management and community engagement. Tomes asserts that addressing persisting biases against different groups of people is necessary to ensure that the field of health communication serves the masses correctly to alleviate public health crises.

This program was organized by the Bullitt History of Medicine Club, a student organization at UNC Chapel Hill’s School of Medicine. If you are interested in watching this lecture, visit or click the linked video above.

Kate Brown is a fourth year psychology student and HHIVE Lab Undergraduate Research Assistant (URA). Her academic interests involve cognitive psychology and behavioral neuroscience. Additionally, Kate enjoys writing music, teaching dance, and spending time outdoors. She is interested in scientific communications as a career and is passionate about making information about the brain accessible to everyone.

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