Media miss real health stories

May 17, 2007

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By Carol Thorbes

Canadian newspapers, which set the agenda for other media, consistently miss the real news about health issues, dwelling instead on the more simplistic and sensational stories. That's the conclusion of an exhaustive SFU study published this month in the international journal Social Science & Medicine.

Entitled Telling stories: News media, health literacy and public policy in Canada, the five-year project led by SFU health sciences professor Michael Hayes is the first long-range analysis of the Canadian media's coverage of health issues.

Hayes, along with Ian Ross, Bob Hackett and Donald Gutstein in the School of Communication and former grad students James Dunn and Mike Gasher, analyzed 4,732 health-related stories in 13 daily newspapers across Canada between 1993 and 2001.

They found that 65 per cent of health news coverage focused on service, delivery, management and regulation issues. Only 5.9 per cent dealt with socio-economic factors and even fewer — 1.5 per cent — dealt specifically with child-development concerns.

Hayes says the results show that newspapers are either not in tune with, or choose not to cover, the overwhelming impact on public health of socio-economic factors such as income, education and social violence.

"I think it is important to ask the media publicly why they can't report on the real stories and underlying causes of health outcomes," he says. "Why can't they be more thoughtful in their analysis of health news stories?"

The researchers point out that government white papers published in 1975 (Lalonde report), 1986 (Epp report) and 1999 (Toward a Healthy Future) show that socio-economic factors largely determine people's health.

They note that rather than analyzing the correlation between socio-economic factors and health concerns, newspapers — and by extension radio and TV — focus on things such as long patient wait lists and rising health care costs.

These attention-grabbing health care issues, say the researchers, are often the result of governments' inability to address the correlation between socio-economic factors and health.

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