> Backgrounder on Telling stories

Backgrounder on Telling stories

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May 17, 2007
•    This study operated on the premise that socio-economic factors are the most significant determinants of the population’s health based on the research literature. It used a federal report called Toward a Health Future (1999) as the frame of reference for analyzing media reports on health.

•    Toward a Healthy Future reported that health status within various populations declined or rose according to their socio-economic circumstances. For example, the population that had the best jobs, the most money and the best education generally had the best level of health, regardless of the prevalence of chronic, infectious or terminal diseases.

•    While the most significant factors (socio-economic) determining public health got the least newspaper coverage in this study, the factors having the least impact (healthcare funding and regulation) got the most coverage.

•    Federal health minister Marc Lalonde’s 1974 report on the state of health in Canada found that health outcomes do not equal acute health care. Yet, 30 years later, two thirds of newspapers’ health coverage focuses on that factor. In this study, on average, 45.2 percent (2189) of stories saw the health care sector’s management and regulation issues as the central health topic. On average 18.8 percent (886) of health care stories dealt with service and delivery issues as their central health topic.

•    Other interesting statistics on media coverage of health: About 12.6 percent (596) mentioned physical environment; 5 percent (235) mentioned personal health practices; 4.2 percent (198) mentioned health advances in basic health and 1.1 percent (51) were on biology and genetic endowment.

•    The researchers studied only newspaper coverage of health for three reasons: In Canada, newspapers are the agenda-setting media; newspapers are easier to manage from a research perspective and due to significant integration of media in Canada, newspaper stories have considerable presence in television and radio programming.

•    Newspapers were chosen from across Canada based on a number of criteria. They had to be major dailies, be available electronically, reflect a mix of ownership, and include papers published in both official languages. Among the papers studied were the Globe and Mail, the National Post, the Vancouver Sun, the Ottawa Citizen, the Calgary Herald, the Montreal Gazette and the Halifax Chronicle Herald.

•    Stories were sampled from each chosen newspaper for the years 1993, 1995, 1997 and 2001. Seventy one percent of the stories were from English-language papers, 28 percent were from French-language papers. The coverage in French focused more on socio-economic factors, but only marginally.

•    A future issue of the Canadian Journal of Communication will feature the results of a companion study undertaken by Hayes and his colleagues. Spreading the News provides the results of in-depth interviews with 12 health beat reporters about what they understand to be the socio-economic determinants of health. They were also asked whether their editors pressured them to cover stories in a certain fashion.

•    Smaller framing studies within this overall study looked at how newspapers conveyed the impact of socio-economic factors in the few stories about them. For example, did the media say poor people are sicker and need more acute healthcare services? Or did they look at how the social marginalization, fewer choices in life and the increased stress accompanying poverty make the poor sicker?

•    John Dunn, a doctoral graduate of Hayes in geography, produced a thesis (1998), Social Inequality: population health and housing that examined the social geography of health and inspired this study. Dunn is now a researcher at the Inner City Health Research Unit, St. Michael’s Hospital, Toronto and a professor in the geography department, University of Toronto. Mike Gasher, an SFU communication graduate is a former journalist. He is now a professor at Concordia University’s department of journalism.

•    A $175,000 grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council funded this research.