Health and medicine have long been leading news themes: studies of Australian print media have shown frequent, prominent coverage, even exceeding that of high-budget social marketing health campaigns. All government public health interventions are conducted against a backdrop of changing media depictions of health issues. Health news is a “background” issue that deserves to be moved into the research foreground of explanations of changes in personal behaviour and health policy.
Research has shown that people acknowledge news media as their primary source of information about health, particularly in areas in which they have limited personal experience. Media coverage can influence people’s agendas about health: what health issues matter, what to avoid or fear, and what preventive actions to take. The media play a central role in the way the public perceive medical treatments. For example, news media have been crucial to the phenomenal increase in the use of complementary medicine, the rise of anti-immunisation rhetoric, the rapid reduction in use of hormone replacement therapy following news reports about health risks, and increases in breast cancer screening after publicity on celebrity diagnosis.
Media coverage can foment beliefs about research and policies that should be supported or opposed, positioning research, medical specialties or procedures as heroic, essential and worthy of continuing support — or marginal, unimportant and even to be actively discouraged. Media coverage can affect community opinions about government priorities. Most high-priority public health issues have been the focus of intensive and extended media coverage. An Australian health minister offered this explanation of research under-funding of two cancers relative to HIV/AIDS: “it isn’t fashionable, it’s not at all in the front pages, it’s not sexy to have testicular or prostate cancer, so you don’t get a run”. A third of Australian politicians surveyed in 2005 nominated news media as “highly influential” on their opinions, ahead of the influence of other politicians (25%), representation from business (23%) and research and opinion polling (16%).
Authors: Simon Chapman, Simon J Holding, Jessica Ellerm, Rachel C Heenan, Andrea S Fogarty, Michelle Imison, Ross Mackenzie and Kevin McGeechan