This blog post, provided by the IPR Behavioral Insights Research Center and written by Dr. Terry Flynn and Tim Li, is based on a research paper by Celine Klemm, Tilo Hartmann,  & Enny Das.

Key Findings

  • People find disease outbreaks to be more severe when they learn about it in news that uses emotional writing and images. However, emotion-evoking communications do not appear to influence feelings of fear and perceptions of vulnerability to the disease.
  • Perception of vulnerability is largely dependent on information about the actual severity and vulnerability, like the symptoms or ease of contraction. This perception is what drives people to take precautionary measures.
  • Emotion-laden reporting of disease outbreaks are considered more sensationalist and exaggerated when there is a low perception of vulnerability – for example, if the outbreak occurs in another country.

Implications for Public Relations

Public relations professionals and other health communicators need to be careful when communicating about health risks like disease outbreaks. Objective information about a threat’s severity and people’s vulnerability to it are crucial for risk evaluation and decision-making. Emotional news is often considered exaggerated and discredited when people perceive their vulnerability to be low. Applying an emotional reporting style to issues that aren’t as personally concerning to audiences may be detrimental to the reputation of the communicator due to increased evaluations of sensationalism.

Communicating risk effectively is complicated, but critically important, especially in fields like health and safety. Two critical components of risk evaluation are the perceptions of severity and vulnerability. However, these evaluations are not made solely based on facts and can be influenced by other factors like how a message is presented. Klemm and colleagues examined the role of emotion in news portrayals of epidemic outbreaks on perceptions of risk and behavioural intentions in different risk scenarios.

The authors presented participants with different versions of a news story describing a fictional disease outbreak. They varied the severity of the disease by altering the symptoms and likelihood of fatality. Vulnerability was manipulated by the location of outbreak, either in the country of the participants or a distant country. The presentation of the content also varied between being factually focused or emotional. The factual news story reported on information about the outbreak in a neutral manner and used a non-emotional picture of a doctor speaking. The emotional news story contained more concrete and vivid text and included a picture of a patient being transported. Participants were asked to rate their perceived severity of the disease described and their vulnerability to it, as well as emotional response, intention to act on the information, and how exaggerated they felt the article was.

The results showed that emotional news made the disease sound more severe, but did not elicit emotional reactions like fear or anxiety. It also did not increase the perception of personal vulnerability. Together, these findings suggest that emotional portrayals of health risks like disease outbreak are not to blame for irrational fear and overreactions.

Feelings of fear and personal vulnerability were driven by objective risk information, like descriptions of the disease’s severity and likelihood of exposure. People are more likely to seek additional information or take precautions if they feel vulnerable to the disease. The incorrect reporting of risk information, such as overstating the vulnerability, may be more detrimental than emotion-laden presentation.

When participants did not feel personally at risk, they found emotional news to be more sensationalist and of lower quality because the overly emotional presentation of the news did not match their perceptions of vulnerability and therefore appeared unjustified.

Blog post compiled by Dr. Terry Flynn and Tim Li. 


Klemm, Celine, Hartmann, Tilo, & Das, Enny. (2019). Fear-Mongering or Fact-Driven? Illuminating the Interplay of Objective Risk and Emotion-Evoking Form in the Response to Epidemic News. Health Communication, 34(1), 74-83.

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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