The Content and Effect of Politicized Health Controversies

Fowler, Erika Franklin; Gollust, Sarah E.
The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science

Health issues are increasingly becoming politicized, but little is known about how politicization takes shape in the news and its effect on the public. We analyze the evolution of politicization in news coverage of two health controversies: the uproar over the 2009 mammography screening guidelines and the 2006–2007 debate over mandating the HPV vaccine as a requirement for middle school–aged girls. We then examine the public response to politicization in the HPV case, using original data from a survey-embedded experiment that was linked with news coverage in all fifty states. We find that real-world politicization is associated with decreases in support for HPV vaccine requirements, state immunization programs, and confidence in doctors and in government. In addition, among those less likely to have encountered real-world politicization, we find marginal evidence that exposure to political conflict decreases support for state immunization programs and clear evidence that politicization reduces confidence in doctors. We discuss the implications of these findings and suggest future avenues of research.