14.5 News media coverage

Contributor: Trish Cotter, September 2011

The news media can provide unparalleled mass reach, allowing information about health issues to be received by a very large proportion of the population.1,2 Early research linked decreases in tobacco consumption and smoking prevalence to news and publicity surrounding some of the first widely publicised reports on smoking and health.3 Notably, unpaid publicity has been credited as the main factor contributing to the 30% decline in smoking prevalence among British males between 1960 and 1980—substantial falls followed the publication of the 1962 and 1971 Royal College of Physicians' reports. Declines in the prevalence of smoking among US males have been attributed chiefly to the influence of the mass media and especially the publicity given to the early US Surgeon General's reports.4

Tobacco-control efforts often attract significant news media attention58 and aggregated news coverage sometimes outweighs even the most intensive exposure gained through paid anti-smoking campaigns.9 Quit Victoria has estimated, for instance, that its 40 media mentions on average per week between January 2007 and December 2010 resulted in an additional 9000 stories in Australian media over the same period that mentioned smoking or tobacco control.10

By influencing public perceptions about the importance of issues, news media can influence public health behaviour directly and indirectly.11 Indirectly, news coverage can influence attitudes and behaviours by attracting institutional attention and prompting related environmental or policy changes.12 This strategic use of news coverage to influence public policy (media advocacy) seeks to develop and shape news stories to build public support for public policies and ultimately influence those who have the power to change or preserve laws, enact polices and fund interventions that can influence whole populations.13,14 This requires active engagement in the process and a good understanding of how the media works. A study by Wakefield and colleagues quantified the recognition of Australian tobacco control advocacy groups by the news media. They found advocacy groups were explicitly mentioned in about one in five newspaper articles on tobacco use, were increasingly likely to be mentioned as the prominence of the article increased and were sought out by journalists for comment on issues.15 News coverage can also directly influence public health behaviours by providing information that changes knowledge, attitudes or intentions,16 or by increasing the perceived importance of a health issue17 such that priming effects occur.18

The volume of news coverage is also a significant factor in shaping opinions. Australian adults are potentially exposed to a significant amount of tobacco-related news coverage and smoking is a leading health news focus in Australia.19 While the amount of coverage may vary considerably across states/territories and across a given year19 one estimate puts this exposure at one tobacco-related news article every week from 2001 to 2006—comparable with or higher than the level of paid advertising.20 Despite this high level of exposure and research exploring the ways in which mass media can influence smokers by paid anti-smoking advertising,2124 research on the role of the news media in directly shaping individual-level smoking outcomes has been limited. Studies have shown correspondence between patterns of news media coverage of tobacco to cigarette purchasing patterns25 and annual rates of cessation.26 Emerging evidence suggests that the volume of newspaper coverage about tobacco-control efforts is important for getting and keeping tobacco control on the agenda8, and is also related to youth smoking-related cognitions27 and behaviours.27,28 To date, only one study has linked adults' self-reported exposure to tobacco news content with any smoking-related beliefs, in this case, support for policies to limit smoking in movies.29 Only a small number of studies have examined smokers' recall of tobacco-related news.18,29,30

In an Australian study, Dunlop and colleagues explored smokers' and recent quitters' recall of tobacco news, and associations between tobacco news recall and smoking-related cognitive and behavioural outcomes. High levels of self-reported exposure to tobacco news were associated with important smoking-related cognitions, including beliefs about harm from smoking and frequent thoughts about quitting. The relationship between news recall and these outcomes was maintained when controlling for known predictors of news exposure such as education. News recall was not, however, related to an increased probability of having made a recent quit attempt.31

New developments in scientific knowledge, public policy initiatives and debates are particularly likely to attract major news coverage.26,20 Given that one of the goals of media advocacy is to raise awareness of health issues by generating news coverage (which can in turn lead to support for and actual policy changes),32 it is imperative to understand how the news media works,8,32 as well as how smokers receive, hear and see tobacco news, in order to make the most of their everyday media habits.

With the exception of MacKenzie's analysis of news portrayals of lung cancer in Australian television news,33 most research examining news coverage of tobacco control has focused on print media.5,27,20 However, the ways in which news is disseminated has changed dramatically. While Australians continue to rate television as the most important source of news information for a range of topics, usage of online news sites is growing.34 By one estimate, in 2005 between 30% and 37% of the Australian population was already using the Internet for news.35

It is important to understand which tobacco issues are most likely to be covered, the nature of the coverage19 and the role the information disseminated by the news media has in shaping smokers' beliefs, intentions and behaviours,33,36 because news can be an accessible and low-cost intervention8 as well as a useful adjunct to a paid media strategy.

Recent news and research

For recent news items and research on this topic, click here (Last updated July 2018)  

 

Acknowledgement

Thank you to Dr Sally Dunlop and Professor Melanie Wakefield for advice and assistance.

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