Health News Comprises Less Than 4% Of All Coverage

Ruzanna Harutyunyan's picture
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As the news media industry experiences a period of upheaval and transformation, a study from the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism reports that news about health and health care made up less than four percent (3.6%) of all news content from January 2007 through June 2008, well behind coverage of foreign affairs and crime, and just behind stories about disasters and accidents.

The study, Health News Coverage in the U.S. Media, also examines the type of health coverage in the news, and finds that the largest proportion (42%) of the stories were about specific diseases or conditions, with cancer receiving the most attention (10% of all health coverage). Thirty-one percent of health news focused on public health issues, including potential epidemics and contamination of food and drugs. The smallest category of stories focused on health policy or the health care system (27%) of all health news, or less than one percent (.9%) of all news content. This category includes stories on topics such as Medicare and Medicaid, the uninsured, health care costs, and proposals for reform of the health care system.

"At a time when health care ranks near the top of the public's list of concerns, there is relatively little coverage of health and health policy in the news media," said Kaiser's Senior Vice President for Media and Public Education Matt James.

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"And while journalists know that Americans are keenly worried about their health care, in practice that usually translates into reporting on specific diseases and conditions rather than examining health policy issues such as why health care costs so much or what to do about it," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Recent trends indicate that people's television viewing is migrating from network to cable programming and from reading news in print publications to more online content. The newly released study indicates that health content ranges from a high of 8.3 percent of network evening news coverage to a low of 1.4 percent of cable news coverage, and from 5.9 percent of newspaper content to 2.2 percent of online news content. Newspapers were the most likely to address health policy issues (41% of all health coverage, compared to 26% of cable's health news and 18% of online health news).

"As the public's news consumption shifts more toward online and cable outlets, people are likely to come across fewer stories about health, and particularly about health policy," said Kaiser's Victoria Rideout, vice president and director of The Program for the Study of Media and Health at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The study encompassed a significant portion of the 2008 primary campaign season, allowing for an analysis of the prevalence of health in campaign-related stories. Several candidates were running for president in hotly contested races for both the Democratic and Republican nominations, but for the period from January 2007 through June 2008, health-focused stories made up less than one percent (0.6%) of campaign news coverage. More generally, coverage of health news dropped as the primary season started in December 2007. From January 2007 to November 2007, health accounted for 4.1 percent of news coverage, but only accounted for 2.8 percent of coverage from December to June 2008.

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