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Health News Coverage in the U.S. Media, Early 2009

As the Obama Administration begins in earnest its plans to take up health care reform, how the media covers the debate at the outset will influence the public view of the issue and what happens next.

To what extent did health issues get covered in the national press during the first six months of the new Obama Administration? What were the topics and stories driving the coverage? How does the extent and focus of the coverage broadly compare with health news coverage in 2007 and the first half of 2008?

Overall, health news coverage is on the rise. And while attention in the early months of the year was more tied to public health issues like the swine flu and salmonella-tainted peanut butter, media attention to health policy increased sharply in June. This report covers a six-month time period, from January through June 2009, and updates an earlier 18-month analysis of January 2007 through June 2008. Both reports were joint projects of the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PE J). The findings are based on an analysis of coverage of health in 55 different news outlets that were originally sampled as part of PEJ’s ongoing News Coverage Index. The study includes the front pages of small, medium and large market newspapers; network TV morning and evening news programs; cable television news; news and talk radio and online news. A total of 1,568 health stories were analyzed for this report.

Key findings include:

  • Health news coverage is growing. It represented 4.9% of all coverage studied in the first six months of the year—a 36% increase over the earlier time period of 2007 and the first half of 2008 when it was 3.6% of all coverage studied, health news kept its spot as the eighth-biggest subject. Heath received less than half of the coverage devoted to the economy; nearly one-and-a-half times the coverage of domestic terrorism and more than three times the coverage of race and gender issues, science and technology, environment or education.
  • Health policy/the U.S. health care system received the most attention of any health-related topic (40.2% of newshole), followed by coverage of public health issues like the swine flu (35.7%) and coverage of specific diseases or conditions (24.1%). This is a big shift in the focus of health reporting from our earlier study; in 2007 and the first half of 2008, health policy/the health care system was the least-covered aspect of health in the news, while in the current period it is the most prominent health topic in the news.
  • The vast majority of health policy coverage had to do with the debate over how to reform health care. It was the biggest single health news story during the first six months of 2009, at 37.5% of the overall health newshole. Most of that coverage came in June when President Obama’s health care bill began making its way through Congress. That month, the health care debate story was the fourth biggest story in the nation.
  • The second-biggest health news story was the swine flu outbreak, which garnered 30.2% of all health coverage. The swine flu story peaked in April when it was the fourthbiggest story in the nation. At the height of the coverage, however, during the week of April 27–May 3, swine flu was the number one story in the nation, attracting 31.1% of the total national newshole. The following week (May 4–10), the story was the nation’s second-biggest story, with 9.2% of national newshole.
  • The single disease to garner the most media attention in the first half of this year was cancer, accounting for 5.9% of all health coverage. The number two condition was mental health, at 2.5%, followed by diabetes/obesity (1.9%).
  • The media sectors differed in the attention paid to health news and also in which health news areas they followed most closely. The three commercial evening newscasts primarily covered specific diseases and health conditions, while the PBS NewsHour focused on health policy issues. Network morning TV and news Web sites, meanwhile, spent more time on the latest public health outbreaks while newspapers and news radio were more evenly divided in their coverage.

Read the full Health News Coverage in the U.S. Media report.

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