According to a study using scary metaphors for any kind of natural disaster or health scare can not only make people notice it, but it can also spread panic or cynicism among populations.
"Such terms can make people sit up and listen, but they can also lead to panic or cynicism," said Professor Brigitte Nerlich, who led the research.
She added: "Recent advice on swine flu has centered on basic hygiene, which makes people feel they can do something practical, instead of being mere victims of so-called "superbugs" or "killer viruses". But obviously this is easier to do when a disease is relatively benign."
She pointed out that easier Internet access might also help people to feel in control-an issue that emerged from a previous ESRC project on foot and mouth disease carried out in Nottingham.
These days, especially in the context of swine flu, "email, Twitter, and public health sites all give information and advice which can be useful to worried individuals and may dampen down panic. 'But more research needs to be done in this area," she said.
The research focused on MRSA along with avian flu and was conducted by a multidisciplinary team with expertise in nursing, the social study of health and illness, environmental studies and linguistics.
The study compared the language of biosecurity, hygiene and cleanliness used in policy documents and media coverage with the language used by hospital matrons and poultry farmers dealing with the realities of MRSA and avian flu.
"We found that the way people communicate about a threat largely determines how they understand it and behave towards it. Additional findings established that media coverage of hygiene and cleanliness in hospitals tended to portray doctors and nurses engaged in a heroic "battle" against "intelligent super bugs.This was personified by the modern matron wielding the weapon of "cleanliness," said Nerlich.
After conducting interviews with hospital matrons, the researchers found that a gap between the media portrayal and the reality on the wards.
Matrons said that the limitations in their authority over contractors, and time constraints made it impossible for them to spend even half their time as a "visible presence" on the wards.
"This was another example of the control issue. Modern matrons have limited powers to limit the spread of infection or improve hygiene. For instance, they can't hire extra nursing staff for barrier nursing or deal with problems with cleaning contractors. Our findings highlight the need for policy messages to be translated more accurately into practice," said Nerlich.