"Chronically Distorted": Report Examines Media Portrayal of Chronic Illness and Health Care Access

Content analyses of media reporting on access to health care and chronic illness

From 1999 to 2001, researchers from the Center for Bioethics and the Annenberg School for Communication, both part of the University of Pennsylvania, examined the content and quality of major news coverage of two key issues: chronic illness and access to health care, particularly for the uninsured.

Key Findings

Findings from a report entitled Chronically Distorted: A Study of How Chronic Illness and Access to Health Care Are Portrayed by the Media include:

  • Access to Health Care

    • Media coverage of health care access focused on problems encountered by insured Americans in managed care plans, largely ignoring the plight of the uninsured and other disadvantaged populations.
    • Barriers encountered by middle class Americans in managed care plans included difficulties obtaining specialty care, emergency services or coverage for specific treatments, such as transplants.
    • Less than one percent of articles mentioned fairness issues.
  • Chronic Illness

    • Media coverage of chronic illness relied heavily on narratives depicting the daily challenges faced by patients and their caregivers, rarely linking individual case studies to the larger health care delivery system or to moral and fairness issues.
    • Coverage of chronic illness was negative, with patients portrayed as hopeless victims who burdened their families.
    • When articles made moral judgments, they usually blamed patients for causing their illness by engaging in socially unacceptable behaviors like smoking.