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Oct. 28, 2010 Volume 32, No. 10

Celebrity news can 'patrol the boundaries' of healthy behavior


A reviled form of journalism may help educate others

Media reports about celebrities are often considered the lowest form of journalism. From Brittany Spears’ public meltdown to the latest drug-related court appearance by Lindsey Lohan, many media consumers revile such stories for their breathless details and lack of news value. 

But MU researchers have found that celebrity journalism may be an underappreciated way to communicate health messages and may help educate people who could face similar struggles in their own lives. In a recent award-winning paper, Amanda Hinnant, assistant professor of magazine journalism in the University of Missouri School of Journalism, found some readers of celebrity health stories report that the stories have an impact on their own behavior and how they discuss health issues.

Hinnant, with co-author Elizabeth Hendrickson from the University of Tennessee, conducted focus groups made up of women between the ages of 22 and 45 to discuss various celebrity health news stories and how each story affected the participants. Previous research had indicated that after a person read a health news story, they would seek out interpersonal advice from a friend or family member before deciding to change their health behaviors. 

The new study suggests that celebrity health stories could circumvent that step.

“Based on the discussion of participants, we observed that it is possible for celebrities to serve as surrogate interpersonal contacts for people,” Hinnant said. “Therefore, it would be less likely for a consumer of celebrity media to check with a friend or family member before changing a health behavior based on a mass-mediated message. The presence of a celebrity in a health story could serve as that interpersonal contact for the reader.”

Hinnant says participants in her research demonstrated how they took celebrity health behaviors seriously, weighing the moral implications and mitigating circumstances of a celebrity’s life before judging his or her behavior. Her study also revealed how the readers are an active audience, one that considers context instead of conduct alone. 

Based on the interviews, Hinnant believes a person may be more likely to respond to a celebrity health story if that person has past experience with the specific issue in question.

“A story about a celebrity’s postpartum health behavior will likely elicit stronger reactions from consumers with children than from those without,” Hinnant said. “Similarly, a story about a celebrity experiencing addiction may stimulate a stronger response from consumers who have witnessed a similar circumstance. In these cases, the health messages likely have different effects on experienced consumers than non-experienced consumers.”

Hinnant believes celebrity health messages play an important role in society; for many celebrity media consumers, they are a catalyst for discussions about health information. She says her research indicates that reaction to health messages is often linked to a consumer’s own experience with the communicated health behavior.

Hinnant’s paper was presented in August at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference. It won first place for the Best of Entertainment Studies Interest Group at the conference.