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Assessing Local TV News Coverage of Health Issues

Crime Most Common Story On Local Television News

Murders, Assaults & Shootings Dominate Crime Coverage

Health Is Fifth Most Common Local News Topic;Coverage Focuses on Disease Prevention and Treatments, Not Health Policy

Embargoed for Release until: 12:00 p.m., ET, Thursday, March 12, 1998

Contact:
Chris Ferris at (202) 347-5270 or
Heather Balas at (650) 854-9400

Washington, DC — A new analysis of local television news programs documents that crime is indeed the single biggest topic of local news coverage, and most crime stories focus on murders, shootings, and other violent crime. The study, conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Center for Media and Public Affairs, finds that the five most common story topics in local news are crime (20 percent) weather (11 percent), accidents and disasters (9 percent), human interest stories (7 percent) and health stories (7 percent), with all other topics ranking below the top five.

The report, Assessing Local Television News Coverage of Health Issues, analyzed more than 17,000 local news stories broadcast during a three-month period. During that time, the number of violent crime stories (2,035) was almost double the number of all health stories (1,265), three times the number of foreign news reports (630), and four times the number of education stories (501).

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The study also finds that in a typical 30-minute newscast, commercials (8 minutes), crime (4 minutes) and sports (4 minutes) account for more than half the airtime. Typical weather coverage lasts about 3 minutes, while health and accidents and disaster coverage last about 2 minutes per topic. All other topics average one minute or less.

“This study shows that stories on crime outnumber other local news stories two to one,” says Drew Altman, Ph.D., President of the Kaiser Family Foundation. “Local TV news wouldn’t cover crime as much as it does if the public didn’t reward such coverage with high ratings. But does anyone seriously believe that crime is twice as important as any other issue that the public needs to learn about from local television news?”

Adds Robert Lichter, Ph.D., President of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, “If it bleeds it leads on the local news, regardless of the reality of falling crime rates.”

Assessing Local News Coverage of Health Issues is a comprehensive look at the content of local television news broadcasts in 13 U.S. markets. The study, which analyzes nightly newscasts during the last three months of 1996, was conducted primarily to better understand how health issues are covered by local television news shows. The study also compares the content of local television news shows with that of network news broadcasts during the same three month period.

The network news agenda differed substantially from that of local news, with foreign news coverage accounting for the most stories, followed by health stories, 1996 campaign coverage, business and economy, and social issues. Crime finished sixth on the network news agenda.

Local Health News Coverage

When local television covered health issues, it focused a majority (60 percent) of its health stories on the causes and treatments for diseases. The diseases that attracted the heaviest coverage were food-borne illnesses (15 percent of all local disease stories) and cancer (12 percent of all local disease stories). The second most common subjects of health stories were environmental/lifestyle health issues, such as diet and exercise (21 percent of local health coverage). Stories about the health care industry and health insurance ranked a distant third, accounting for 5 percent of health coverage, followed by legal health stories (4 percent), stories about HIV/AIDS (3 percent) and reproductive health and abortion issues (2 percent). Stories about the two major government health insurance programs, Medicaid and Medicare, made up 1% of local health news stories.

Although health stories were more common on network news, the three networks covered health much like local news. As with local news, stories about causes and treatments for diseases accounted for more than half (51 percent) of network health stories, with cancer making up the largest number (16 percent) of all disease stories. Environmental/lifestyle health issues, the second most common topic among network news health stories, made up 28 percent of all health news.

Although health stories were more common on network news, the three networks covered health much like local news. As with local news, stories about causes and treatments for diseases accounted for more than half (51 percent) of network health stories, with cancer making up the largest number (16 percent) of all disease stories. Environmental/lifestyle health issues, the second most common topic among network news health stories, made up 28 percent of all health news.

Local and network health news also mirrored each other in terms of the type of health information they provide to viewers. Almost three-quarters of local health stories (74 percent) and over two-thirds (69 percent) of network health news focused on providing consumer news – “news you can use” – such as how to choose and HMO or the latest approach to prevent heart disease.

Information on health policy information, such as consideration of health care legislation in state capitals or coverage of the Medicare debate, accounted for about one-fourth of local (23 percent) and of network (28 percent) health stories. Health and politics news, in which health issues were discussed in terms of a political strategy on the part of a politician or public official, accounted for 4 percent of local and 3 percent of network health news.

An anchor or reporter without a specified beat reported the vast majority (94 percent) of local health news stories. A dedicated health reporter reported only 5 percent of local health stories.


Methodology

Assessing Local Television News Coverage of Health Issues was designed and analyzed by researchers at the Center for Media and Public Affairs in consultation with the Kaiser Family Foundation. The study is based on content analysis of the top-rated (with one exception) weekday evening newscasts from 13 cities around the country (Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Denver, Houston, Minneapolis, Chicago, St. Louis, Atlanta, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York) during the months of October, November and December 1996. The national evening newscasts from the ABC, CBS, and NBC networks during the same time period were also analyzed for comparison. The resulting sample consisted of 608 hours of local news and 99 hours of network news. A more detailed methodology is included in the report.

The Kaiser Family Foundation, based in Menlo Park, California, is an independent national health care philanthropy and is not associated with Kaiser Permanente or Kaiser Industries. The Foundation’s work is focused on four main areas: health policy, reproductive health, and HIV in the United States, and health and development in South Africa.

The Center for Media and Public Affairs is a nonpartisan, nonprofit research and educational organization. It conducts scientific studies of the news and entertainment media, using content analysis. Since it formation in 1985, the Center has conducted and published numerous studies of the media.

Reprints of Assessing Local Television News Coverage of Health Issues are available by calling the Kaiser Family Foundation’s publication request line at 1-800-656-4533. (Ask for document #1374). This press release is also available on the Kaiser Foundation’s home page at http://www.kff.org.

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