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Local TV news covers health a lot, but not always well


First-ever national analysis of local TV news health coverage reveals opportunities for both broadcasters and health experts to improve

Local television newscasts, where most Americans get most of their news, are packed with medical stories and health information. But the first-ever national study of that coverage finds many problems with it, and sees room for improvement by both TV stations and the health experts whose work fills the news.

In the March issue of the American Journal of Managed Care, researchers from the University of Michigan and the University of Wisconsin-Madison report results from an in-depth analysis of health coverage on local TV newscasts from across the country.

In all, health and medical stories comprised 11 percent of the news portion of late-evening newscasts in the one-month period studied, with 1,799 such stories carried on 2,795 broadcasts captured from the representative sample of 122 stations in the nation’s top 50 media markets.

The average story was 33 seconds long, and most did not give specifics about the source of the information presented. Items about specific diseases tended not to contain recommendations for viewers, or information about how common the disease was -- which could help put the news into perspective with other health issues.

But most disturbing, the study’s authors say, were the egregious errors contained in a small minority of studies -- errors that could have led to serious consequences.

For instance, a story that aired on several stations reported on lemon juice’s effect on sperm and speculated about, or presented as fact, the use of lemon juice as an effective contraceptive, and its potential effect on preventing sexual transmission of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Despite the fact that the study was done in a research lab, nearly all the stories failed to mention that it had not involved humans. Even more alarming, one of the stations misinterpreted the study altogether and stated that lemon juice may be a substitute for "costly" HIV medications.

"Egregious errors such as these can actually harm the public," says lead author James Pribble, M.D., a lecturer in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the U-M Medical School who began the study as a U-M Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholar.

"The key here is the focus on local news," says co-author Ken Goldstein, Ph.D., a UW-Madison professor of political science. "Local TV news is the single greatest source of information for the majority of Americans -- whether it be politics or health -- and understanding what sorts of health information people are being exposed to demands that we analyze the content of this most prevalent source."

Thousands of hours of local news broadcasts were recorded and compiled by Newslab, a unique UW-Madison facility directed by Goldstein that was originally developed to study TV coverage of political campaigns. The new study is the first time Newslab has been used to study a non-political topic, and the first exhaustive study of health coverage on local TV. Most studies of health and medical coverage have focused on newspapers and national network television shows.

The study focused on broadcasts from October 2002, which had been stored in Newslab’s servers for analysis pertaining to elections held that November. They offered a goldmine of health stories.

Each story was viewed by two trained study staff, who noted the story’s subject matter, length and other characteristics, and wrote descriptive summaries. Then, a physician or other health professional viewed each story and categorized it according to the medical condition discussed. The researchers also looked for patterns in the stories carried on different stations, for example items about a single new research study that appeared on multiple newscasts.

The two most common specific health topics for stories were breast cancer and West Nile Virus. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, an occasion that many TV stations use to focus on breast health issues. And many areas of the country were experiencing an ongoing outbreak of West Nile Virus infections at the time.

But the coverage of these two topics highlights some of the problems found throughout the study, Pribble says. For example, breast cancer got far more coverage than lung cancer, which is the leading cause of cancer death in the United States; only five stories focused on lung cancer. And 40 of the breast cancer stories focused on one study about the effectiveness of teaching women to examine their breasts for signs of cancer. But those stories often contained conflicting messages with introductory statements such as "breast self-exams are a waste of time" followed by recommendations at the conclusion of the story that encouraged women to continue performing breast self-exams.

Meanwhile, most of the West Nile stories didn’t put the disease into perspective by comparing its prevalence and severity with that of other, much more common and deadly, infectious diseases. In fact, stories about West Nile made up more than half of all stories about infectious diseases carried by local newscasts in the study period. At the same time, 82 percent of the West Nile stories failed to tell viewers how to prevent the mosquito bites that transmit the virus, or what to do if bitten.

Pribble and Goldstein don’t blame just the newscast producers and reporters for these problems. They emphasize that public health authorities, clinical experts and researchers must give reporters information, interviews and pre-taped video that meet the demands of TV newscasts, which must tell stories quickly, visually and in language that’s understandable to non-experts. At the same time, the authors say, they should help reporters put individual news items into perspective, and help them understand what health and medical topics have the most bearing on the public’s health.

"The fact that one of the most-covered stories in the study was about the removal of warts using duct tape, a topic which has questionable public health value, and that the story originated in a press release from a renowned medical journal, shows that we in the health community have work to do," says Pribble. "The onus is on health care providers, organizations and agencies to provide information in a helpful way that will help local TV reporters cover health and medicine better."

Goldstein hopes that further studies using the Newslab’s digital recordings of local TV news will help both broadcasters and health experts understand how to improve the health information that reaches the public. Such analysis can be important for improving communications in a public health crisis, as well as the day-to-day flow of information from newly published health studies, new government recommendations, and innovations in medical care made available by doctors and hospitals.

Goldstein and Pribble are currently studying how local news covered health in 2004, and are also looking at the coverage of health issues on local Spanish-language television. UW-Madison is currently pursuing funding for further data collection and studies in 2006.

Kara Gavin | EurekAlert!
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