How Well Do Newspapers Cover the Topic of Health Care?

Starting in March 1995, the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications, Gainesville, Fla., conducted three quantitative and qualitative analyses of daily newspaper coverage of health-related topics from 1993 and 1996.

It also conducted a quantitative comparison of coverage of health-related topics and that of crime, education, and sports coverage. Project staff:

  • Analyzed the extent of daily newspaper coverage of health and health care compared with other issues.
  • Conducted a content analysis of a random sample of health-related articles.
  • Determined whether major national and regional newspapers such as the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, and the Wall Street Journal cover health issues differently than other daily newspapers.

Key Findings

  • Politicians and government sources are cited in health articles twice as often as any other group, including health professionals, in 1993.
  • Although nearly 80 percent of the sample articles contained at least some mention of the organization, delivery, and financing of health care, the news media did a poor job of informing consumers, health professionals, and business owners about the structural aspects of the health industry and how those groups would be affected by proposed changes.
  • In health articles that appear in national and major regional newspapers, the articles were slightly longer, and academics, advocacy groups, and nonhealth business representatives were quoted more often than in articles in smaller newspapers.
  • In 1996, after health reform was no longer major news, health professionals and consumers were quoted more often than were politicians and government officials.
  • Less than 25 percent of all health system articles included health professionals as sources and less than 18 percent included consumers as sources.
  • Physicians and other health professionals were significantly less likely than other source types to be included in articles focused on organization, delivery, and financing issues compared with other topics.

3 Content Analyses

  • The First Analysis—The researchers produced the first-ever analysis of daily newspaper coverage by using electronic databases. Using keywords, the researchers searched Lexis-Nexis, the electronic database comprising 230 papers that make up 63 percent of all U.S. daily circulation.

    Researchers found that in 1993, when health care reform was an important national issue:

    • 70,580 articles were written about health compared with 211,021 articles about crime (3 times more), 128,017 about education (1.8 times more), and 146,794 about sports (2.1 times more).

    Researchers drew a sample of articles longer than 500 words from this pool for further study.

  • The Second Analysis—The start-up phase of a second-round study examining essentially the same variables as the initial study.

    The study was designed so that results could be compared with those of 1993. A sample of some 1,000 health articles published in 1996 was selected from Lexis-Nexis.

    The coding used for categorizing the articles in the previous study was revised, and coders were recruited and trained.

  • The Third Analysis—Researchers compared the number of articles about health care with the number focused on education, crime and sports and performed quantitative and qualitative analyses.