Theoretical Background and research questions/hypothesis: The 2016 CDC Vital Signs release on alcohol and pregnancy received widespread traditional media and social media coverage, as well as a substantial number of public comments. Guided by Framing theory, the current project was designed to assess how the Vital Signs release was portrayed in the media and the public’s opinions and attitudes towards the release. The analyses resulted in lessons learned and recommendations on how to effectively communicate messages on sensitive topics such as alcohol and pregnancy.
Methods: Three content analyses were conducted to examine the impact of the Vital Signs release: a traditional media content analysis, a public discourse analysis of reader comments, and a social media content analysis. Cision software was used to collect news articles for the traditional media content analysis and the public discourse analysis. The traditional media articles and reader comments were manually coded with the assistance of a comprehensive coding manual. Crimson Hexagon, a social listening platform, was used to collect and automatically code data from social media sites. Data for all analyses were collected from February 2, 2016, the day of the Vital Signs release, to March 2, 2016. A total of 363 traditional news articles, 274 reader comments, and over 18,000 social media posts were included in the analysis.
Results: The results showed that approximately 40% of news articles stated that the Vital Signs no-alcohol recommendation was not practical. Twenty-two percent of readers stated that the no-alcohol recommendation was not practical and 19% stated that the recommendations were practical. Among readers who shared their personal experiences with alcohol and pregnancy (approx. 25%), only half supported the release. Moreover, readers’ framing of the release was more positive if they read news articles that included a higher number of the Vital Signs key messages and if the news articles included interviews with professionals. The results also showed that males were significantly more likely than females to frame the release in a positive manner and to believe that the recommendations were practical. Discussions around men as part of the problem with alcohol use and pregnancy was present in 17% of the new articles and in 9% of the reader comments.
Conclusions: The Vital Signs release was mainly portrayed and received as a CDC report on alcohol and birth control rather than a report on alcohol and pregnancy. Consequently, some key messages in the Vital Signs release were interpreted through the wrong lens and the public’s reaction to the release was misguided.
Implications for research and/or practice: It is critical to test all public health messages, particularly those that deal with sensitive topics, with target audiences prior to releasing messages and/or materials to the public. Moreover, sensitive topics often need to be tested with those who are not in the target audience but who may be audiences’ trusted sources for health news and information or vocal on the subject matter. Testing can help ensure that program planners have an in-depth understanding of the audiences’ thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors and will help them develop accurate, appropriate and relevant information for target audiences.