Media suffering from 'tunnel vision,' says health researchers

Mar 21, 2002, vol. 23, no. 6
By Carol Thorbes

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Daily stories about a shortage of health care funding and miraculous medical discoveries may be symptomatic of a serious malady afflicting the news media, speculates Michael Hayes.

“Tunnel vision,” suggests the Simon Fraser University health geographer and associate director of the institute for health research and education.
Hayes specializes in population health research and leads a collaborative project called Telling stories: news media, health literacy and public policy.

The three year project, funded by a $175,000 grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, will generate empirical analysis of health literacy in Canadian news media.

Faculty from SFU's school of communication (Bob Hackett and Donald Gustein) and the University of Calgary, B.C.'s provincial health officer and the Institute of Media, Policy and Civil Society are collaborating on the study.

Hayes' group recently gathered telling evidence in a pilot project aimed at testing the study's methodology and content analysis tools.

“We found that an overwhelming number of health stories in major newspapers deal obsessively with shortages in health care services and funding, and medical discoveries,” says Hayes. “The last 30 years of federal health policy-making have been based on evidence that factors outside the health care system are fundamental to determining and maintaining a population's health. Yet very few of the stories we analysed dealt with health determinants such as housing, nature of work, poverty or income distribution.”

The pilot project analysed 500 health stories published collectively over a year in five major newspapers: the Globe and Mail, National Post, Toronto Star, Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun.

“We know that the news media significantly impact public opinion. Research shows that risk factors for mortality as presented in the media often don't jibe at all with the empirical evidence,” says Hayes.

He adds this kind of reporting feeds public pressure for short term, immediate solutions to health care shortages.

“Policy makers need to second the news media's help in shifting public opinion if we are to focus on early developmental and life-long factors that influence health outcomes over the life course,” says Hayes.

The SFU professor's collaborative study will gather empirical evidence on the extent to which the news media set the public agenda on health and what influences their decision-making.

The group's research will culminate in workshops aimed at stimulating health reporting and public discourse that better addresses the broad spectrum of determinants affecting population health.

Hayes notes that this study is unique in its focus and broad-based, interdisciplinary approach.

Hayes also has a $521,000 grant over three years to analyse and correlate information from a variety of databases about the distribution of health status in the Lower Mainland.

The Canadian Institute for Health Information is funding this project through its Canadian Population Health Initiative.

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