"We see that a single incident reported in the media, can cause great public concern if it is interpreted to mean that the potential risk is difficult to control, as with the possibility of a pandemic like in the case of Avian flu, and bioterrorism, as in the case of anthrax infection," said Young.
On the other hand, when participants were given the descriptions of the disease, without the name, they actually thought that the diseases that received infrequent media coverage -the control group-were actually worse.
"Another interesting aspect of the study is when we presented factual information about the diseases along with the names of them, the media effect wasn't nearly as strong," said Karin Humphreys, one of the study's authors and assistant professor in the Department of Psychology, Neuroscience & Behaviour.
He added: "This suggests that people can overcome the influence of the media when you give them the facts, and so objective reporting is really critical."
In fact, Humphreys said that it was surprising to know that the medical students, considered to be having more factual knowledge about these diseases, were equally influenced by the media, irrespective of their background.
The study is published online in the Public Library of Science: ONE.