It's practically become a cliche: news media overhypes potential epidemic, epidemic does not occur, media is roundly mocked for being alarmist and sensational.
Not so fast, advise researchers from Georgia Tech and Marshall University. That three-hour CNN special on avian flu might be the only thing standing between us and a global pandemic. Simply put, the greater the media hype, the greater your chances of surviving an outbreak of deadly disease. From the paper by Howard Weiss and Anna Mummert, which uses a variation on the SIR model for spread of disease:
During outbreaks of serious infectious diseases many individuals closely follow media reports of the outbreak and take steps, including self-isolation, to protect themselves from infection and possibly death. Self-isolation can take many forms including restricting local and long-distance travel, using face masks, and choosing to receive a vaccine...Our model also shows that although providing such information beginning as early as possible is best, even starting to provide it well into the course of an outbreak can significantly reduce the severity of the outbreak.(H/T to the Columbia Journalism Review)