The Effect of Political and Expert Controversy on Public Opinion: The Case of HPV Vaccine Mandates

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Principal investigator:

Erika Fowler

Wesleyan University



Sample size: 1216

Field period: 5/5/2009-7/8/2009


The rush to HPV legislation and the controversy that ensued has led several public health and medical experts to worry about the policy consequences of the politicized debate. To date, however, we know little about the effect of the controversy surrounding HPV vaccination in the media on the public’s attitudes and opinions. Through a series of projects centering on media coverage of HPV-related policy action at the state level, we seek TESS funding to evaluate how media coverage of controversy shaped personal decisions over whether to vaccinate, public support for immunization policy, and confidence in vaccines more generally.


We hypothesize that controversy will lower public support for legislation requiring the HPV vaccine for school entry and that controversy may spill-over to support for immunization programs more generally.

We explore how different types (medical vs. political) of controversy affect support for school mandates.

Experimental Manipulations

We will have four experimental groups, each receiving different stimuli. Participants in the Reference Group (Group 1) will be exposed to an article that discusses the HPV vaccine and recent legislative activity, but without identifying any controversy or conflict. In the Political Conflict Group (2), participants will be exposed to the same article as Group 1; however, the article will present conflict on the political dimension. The Medical Conflict Group (3) will expose participants to the same original article; however, the article will present conflict on the medical/public health dimension. Finally, the Dual Conflict Group (4) will use the same article; however, the article will present conflict on both dimensions.


1. Support for requiring the HPV vaccine for school entry
2. Confidence in state immunization programs
3. Personal intentions to vaccinate

Summary of Results

Although controversy did reduce support for legislative mandates requiring the HPV vaccine for school entry, it did not spill-over to lower public support for state immunization programs.


Gollust, Sarah E., Amanda F. Dempsey, Paula M. Lantz, Peter A. Ubel,
and Erika Franklin Fowler. (2010). Controversy undermines support for
state mandates on the human papillomavirus vaccine. Health Affairs
29: pp. 2041-2046.

Gollust, Sarah E., Laura Attanasio, Amanda Dempsey, Allison M. Benson, and Erika Franklin Fowler. (Forthcoming). Political and news media factors shaping public awareness of the HPV vaccine. Women's Health Issues.

Fowler, Erika Franklin and Sarah E. Gollust. Old News?: Why Measuring Real-World Exposure to Competitive Framing Matters. Working Paper.