After Tim Russert, host of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” died of a heart attack at 58, media reports indicated men from his cohort were eagerly booking long-delayed visits to their cardiologists. No wonder. Russert, a celebrity newsman with an audience of millions, seemed the picture of health and vigor. If he could die so suddenly, who wasn’t at risk?
Russert’s sudden passing, in short, was the sort of misfortune that brought the subject of cardiac health home in a way no public service announcement ever could. Might the reporting of other celebrity health issues serve to similarly instruct?
Amanda Hinnant, an assistant professor of journalism at MU, suggests that this is indeed the case, particularly when the celebrity patient lives to talk about his or her health experiences.
Research shows that people who encounter health-related media tend to use the occasion to query friends and family members about the issues involved. But celebrities, those exalted beings to whom we all feel a vicarious kinship, might allow health consumers to supplant that step. In other words, says Hinnant, the mere “presence of a celebrity in a health story could serve as that interpersonal contact for the reader.”
Hinnant explored these ideas in a focus-group-based study with Elizabeth Hendrickson, an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. They found study participants took celebrity health behaviors seriously. Participants looked closely, for example, at how lifestyle and decision-making may have affected a star’s health behavior. They also were interested in contexts: how the celebrity may have been influenced by circumstances to which focus-group members could relate. This last point is especially important, Hinnant says, because it shows how the participants take a lot of information into account when weighing and evaluating health behaviors.
In the end, group members tended to confirm the researchers’ hunch: celebrity health stories matter. For celebrity-media consumers, Hinnant and Hendrickson found, celebrity messages can be a catalyst for discussions about health information. Whether they are about addiction, pregnancy or cancer, they communicate health messages—good and bad.
Hinnant and Hendrickson’s paper was presented at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference earlier this year. It was awarded first place in the conference’s Best of Entertainment Studies Interest Group.