As the media landscape in the United States has shifted and changed, the emphasis placed on digital technologies — particularly with respect to audience engagement — has become increasingly noteworthy. However, when situated against a backdrop of risk communications and sensationalized spectacle, such an emphasis also becomes concerning.
This thesis examines the audience engagement considerations and practices of the media industry at present through a discussion of current social media policies and practices, a discussion of the affordances and constraints of social media as they relate to public health communications concerns, and an analysis of the affective implications of the heavy emphasis placed on images used on social media. This breakdown is partnered with a data‐oriented exploration of U.S. audience trends and U.S. media coverage of the 2014 Ebola and 2015‐2017 Zika outbreaks to underscore the perception gap that U.S. audiences are contending with. In doing so, I use a theoretical framework of sensationalism, gatekeeping, and media figurations to argue that audience engagement is not merely a journalistic, revenue‐oriented concern — it is a public health concern too.