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Health Reporting in the Mass Media



A. Introduction



Consultant Laura Brydges shares some results from her 1996 master degree's research, in which she merged her 10-plus years experience as a health professional and nutrition/health promoter with her journalism studies. She now provides media relations training as well as desktop project and communications consulting services to health professionals.


B. Study Design



This mail-out survey compared the perceptions among and between:

- journalists (selected from membership of the Canadian Science Writers' Association);

- health professionals (selected from the Ontario Directory of Public Health Agencies and The Guide to Canadian Health Care Facilities); and

- health care public relations specialists (selected from the membership of the Health Care Public Relations Association of Canada).



From an initial sample of 200 with approximately equal representation of all three groups, 79 responded (39.5%)

The final sample included 14 journalists (19%), 34 health professionals (45%), and 27 health care public relations specialists (34%). The sampling technique resulted in a proportionately higher representation of managers than staff or freelancers/private practitioners.



Frequency tables were produced for scaled responses. Between-groups and between-questions comparisons were produced by cross-tabulating the responses, then testing for significant differences using Chi-Square

tests. Most comparison tests were not statistically valid due to low responses. All observations and conclusions are therefore descriptive.



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C. Highlights



Here are some highlights from the results:



Q: Please list the four most important health issues and events face by Canadian today.

1. Health care system issues ranked first among all three expertise groups.

2. Prevention / health promotion issues ranked second overall, second among health professionals and health care public relations specialists and fourth among journalists.

3. Disease issues ranked third overall and among health professionals and health care public relations specialists, and second among journalists.

4. Research issues ranked fourth overall, second among health care public relations specialists, third among journalists and sixth among health professionals.



Q: Please rank the amount of coverage you believe the mass media gives to each item listed.

1. Journalists appear to believe that prevention and health promotion issues receive enough coverage, while the other two groups describe coverage as too little.



Story Selection

1. All three groups believe that current reporting does not adequately select positive stories over negative stories.

Most satisfied with current practices: Journalists



2. Although all three groups predominantly believe that stories containing conflict are more frequently reported than those without conflict, there is indecision surrounding what are ideal health reporting practices.



Least satisfied with current practices: Health care public relations specialists



3. All three groups believe that, although health issues involving definitive events or actions are most likely to be reported currently, this is not ideal.



Most satisfied with current practices: Journalists



6. While all three expertise groups believe that stories which involve a victim are usually reported currently, they also believe this is not ideal.



Least satisfied with current practices: Health professionals



Story Coverage:

1. All three expertise groups believe that, currently, the amount of coverage given to a particular health risk does not adequately reflect its frequency of occurrence.



Most satisfied with current practices: Journalists



2. All three groups believe that current health reporting is not adequately providing the public with information about the most important issues of the time.



Most satisfied with current practices: Journalists

Least satisfied with current practices: Health professionals



Story Content:

1. There is agreement between all three expertise groups that current health reports are not including information which gives the audience a better understanding of the topic, and that ideal reports would do so.



Most satisfied with current practices: Journalists



Q: What two suggestions do you have to improve the quality of health reporting in the mass media?

1. Overall, all three groups - and particularly journalists - believe that increasing the data literacy and scientific expertise of health reporters, increasing their staffing levels and increasing their time for health reporting will improve health reporting.



2. Health professionals and health care public relations specialists believe that decreasing the levels of sensationalism and bias, and increasing breadth in topics, coverage and content will improve health reporting.



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D. Author's comments



Health promotion specialists are in a position to influence the quality of health reporting in the mass media. Health communications and media relations plans can address not only the short-term goals of achieving

coverage and accurate content in health stories, but can also use what we know about current journalism beliefs and practices to build successful long term relationships and ultimately influence the health reporting process toward increased selection and coverage of important health promotion issues and events.



- submitted by Laura Brydges received the 1996 media research award from the Consumer's Association of Canada and Rogers Broadcasting for this project. In 1996 she also was recipient of the graduate award for

excellence in medical/science reporting, and first place winner of the Canadian Medical Association's national Amy Chouinard Memorial Essay contest.

Laura Brydges' services are available by calling 519-469-3491 (p/f) or P.O. Box 135, Innerkip, ON, N0J 1M0.


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