November 24, 2008

Health News Coverage in the U.S. Media

Even as the news media environment in this country changes rapidly, it continues to hold a critically important role in society: millions of Americans turn to various news media every day for information, and what they learn there makes a difference in which issues rise or fall on the national agenda, how the public perceives key issues, and how well they understand important policy debates. The purpose of this study is to take a broad look at how the news media covered one vital area—health and health policy—in 2007 and 2008. While there have been many studies that have taken a narrow look at news coverage of specific health issues (breast cancer, diabetes) or at coverage in one particular news medium (local television, print) this report takes a wider look at the broad spectrum of health issues, across a wide range of news media.

The report addresses the following questions:

  • To what extent has health news been a part of the national news agenda?
  • Which health topics get the most coverage?
  • How does coverage vary from print to television, radio to online?
  • And how big of an issue was health in coverage of the 2008 Presidential primary campaign?

The findings are based on an analysis of coverage of health in 48 different news outlets sampled as part of the ongoing News Coverage Index produced by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PE J) . This report covers an 18-month time period, from January 2007 though June2008. The study includes small, medium and large market newspapers, network TV morning and evening news programs, cable television news, news and talk radio, and online news. A total of 3,513 health stories were analyzed for this report. Two limitations of the sample are that it does not include local television news, and that its newspaper data includes frontpage stories only. At the same time, a major advantage of this study is that it analyzed news coverage every weekday (plus the Sunday newspapers) for a year and a half, rather than relying on a sample from a more limited time frame (e.g., one week’s worth of content).

The key findings include:

  • Health news was the 8th biggest subject in the national news, comprising 3.6% of all coverage. This is more than three times the amount of coverage for education or transportation, but much less than coverage about foreign affairs, crime, or natural disasters.
  • Network evening news viewers were the most likely to find health news in their programming. Looking at every newscast (Monday – Friday) on the three evening news programs from January 2007 through June 2008 reveals that fully 8.3% of airtime was devoted to health-related news, with a heavy emphasis on specific ailments such as heart disease and cancer. This was more than twice the coverage of health in any other news genre except newspapers (where it was 5.9%).
  • Cable news, on the other hand, found very little room for health news, just 1.4% of programming studied.• When the overall coverage of health was broken down, specific diseases such as cancer, diabetes or heart disease received the most coverage at 41.7%. Public health issues such as food contamination, tainted vaccines, and binge drinking garnered the next most attention, accounting for nearly a third (30.9%) of all health coverage. News about health policy or the U.S. health care system was not far behind, at 27.4% of the coverage.
  • The single disease to get the most attention was cancer, accounting for 10.1% of all health coverage. Some of this attention was driven by announcements of cancer in two public figures—Elizabeth Edwards and Tony Snow. The number two condition was diabetes/obesity, at 5.2% of coverage, followed by heart disease, at 3.9%, and HIV/ AIDS and autism at 2.2% each.
  • The biggest individual health-related story was the debate over U.S. health care policies, which was the focus of 16.3% of all health news. Coverage of that story peaked in the fallof 2007 when the debate about the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) erupted in Congress. The next biggest story was the tuberculosis-carrying traveler who entered the U.S. This story accounted for 8.3% of health coverage for the entire 18-month period, but during the week it occurred, it was the top-ranked story in the nation.
  • Despite ongoing debates in government about the future of our health care system, health did not become a dominant part of the 2008 primary campaign coverage. Whether focused on health policy or personal health issues, the subject accounted for less than 1% (.6%) of the campaign related news in the study. It is important to note that this includes only those stories in which the campaign was the primary topic, and health was a major focus of the story; and that the study included only those print stories that appeared on the front page of the paper. For these reasons, it is possible that the study underestimates coverage of health in the campaign. On the other hand, it does seem to indicate a smaller amount of high-profile coverage of the candidates’ positions on health care than many insiders expected.

Click here to read the complete study.