Personal Health

Study: U.S. Media Keep People Uneducated About Health Issues

Less than 4 percent of news is health-related. And shoddy reporting on sexual health may be doing more harm than good.

"Blaming the media" is a catchphrase that is used in almost cliché-level proportions. But when it comes to health care, a new study indicates it may be appropriate to fault media coverage for a lack of public knowledge about health care policy -- and by extension, the false perception of reproductive rights as ideological "hot rods" rather than women's health concerns.

A recently releasedPew Research study conducted with the Kaiser Family Foundation monitored health coverage from January 2007 to June 2008 to determine which subjects got the most coverage, and in which media. The study was designed to be particularly broad-ranging -- rather than, for instance, analyzing how TV news covers breast cancer, the study looked at how television, radio, print, online outlets and other forms of media covered everything heath-related, from specific diseases to health policy and more.

What were the results? According to the report, "News about health occupies a relatively small amount of American news coverage across all platforms: 3.6percent of news during 2007 and the first half of 2008." In a list of most frequently covered topics, health came in eighth -- far above religion, education and celebrities, but below the economy, crime, foreign affairs and politics.

These results, while hardly thrilling, don't seem abysmal at first. Health gets more coverage than celebrities, after all, which seems like a victory in our current climate. But compounding the small amount of attention devoted to health, the breakdown within existing health coverage shows a tendency to focus on controversial or sensational aspects of health issues, leaving vital policy information behind. One need only to think about the extreme health stories on the nightly news (Are your pills contaminated? Are your children at risk from a rare strain of X?) to understand the crux of the problem. Why focus on the actual public ramifications of various diseases and policies when Jenny McCarthy and Amanda Peet are going at it over autism? Or we can lure people in front of the TV by frightening them?

This is a situation only too familiar to reproductive-health advocates, who often see the public health crises caused by lack of reproductive health care submerged beneath the kind of pitched battles or titillating stories the media loves.

Within the small percentage of health news, outlets focused 41.7 percent on specific diseases, the kind of coverage that spikes somewhat when a celebrity like Elizabeth Edwards, Tony Snow or Tim Russert has cancer or a heart attack. Public health issues made up 30.9 percent of coverage, including stories like the tuberculosis-infected man-on-plane scandal, and reports on gossipy health problems like binge drinking.

Coming in third, actual health policy made up only 24.7 percent of general "health" coverage -- and this includes the political battles during the primaries and the congressional vote on the State Children's Health Insurance Pprogram. Considering that the American health care system is essentially broken, this is a dismal indicator: as the report notes, that means that health policy news made up less than 1 percent of media coverage during the time period. This is not to say that other aspects of health care coverage are unimportant (certainly, diseases and public health issues are probably not covered deeply enough), but instead that sensational and celebrity-oriented slants to health stories often obscure the practical health issues that affect media consumers' lives.

An example of this is the fact that HIV/AIDS stories made up only 2.2 percent of stories related to health, even though misinformation about the (still very much present) disease persists, and dissemination of accurate information is crucial to preventing its transmission.

Newsflash: Reproductive Health Issues Are Health Issues

The lack of coverage when it comes to HIV/AIDS is emblematic of a general failure when it comes to the portrayal of sexual health and reproductive rights in the news media.

In our scandal- and controversy-oriented news culture, reproductive health issues are treated as controversial flashpoints or political footballs rather than genuine public and personal health crises. Many media personalities and reporters caught on to fact that there is a connection between ideology and health during John McCain's infamous placing of "air quotes" around the word "women's health" during a debate -- but there has been little follow up on that connection.

One example of the way the discussion is turned away from health and toward "morality" is the firestorm over the Health and Human Services regulations that would allow providers to opt out of medical procedures they find objectionable.

In focusing on the consciences and internal struggles of health care providers, rather than the difficulty women have accessing proper care, the media does more damage than it possibly can be aware of.

Last month in Slate, Melinda Hennenberger offered an egregious example of this: She spun a piece about the Freedom of Choice Act, legislation that would expand women's access to reproductive care and abortion, into an assault on the moral consciences of Catholics. Presto -- a bill meant to protect women's health becomes an ideological war on the Catholic Church. A juicier story, but a misleading one.

RH Reality Check refuted Hennenberger's factual speculation and even her colleague Dahlia Lithwick reminded readers that women's health hangs in the balance, and often gets lost in the shuffle, when this question is debated.

An example of how to address reproductive health issues in a nonsensational, health-based manner is Rachel Maddow's recent interview with Melissa Harris Lacewell, which was also discussed on this site. The most remarkable thing about the interview was that rather than being framed as a left-right battle royal, the priority of women's health needs was acknowledged by both interviewer and interviewee and was the jumping off point for their discussion rather than the conclusion. They still managed to talk for a long time, and it was even interesting!
There is a market for sensible, factual health coverage because it affects people's lives. It's a wonder that so many arbiters of what's "news" have yet to discover that. Framing reproductive health issues from a public health perspective, and boosting coverage of health care policy, are absolutely crucial to changing the frame on reproductive rights back to what it's really about: women's access to the care they need.
Sarah Seltzer is an associate editor at AlterNet, a staff writer at RH Reality Check and a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published in and on the websites of the Nation, the Christian Science Monitor and the Wall Street Journal. Find her at