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Media Coverage and Health Care Reform

Talk of health care reform is in the air.

As we showed in “The Potential for National Health Care Reform,” the political realignment that occurred during the last election cycle makes the introduction of major reform legislation likely when the new Congress convenes in January.

And voters are now expressing interest and support in the broad idea of health care reform. A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted between December 11 and 14 found that:

  • 77% of Americans believe that Obama should make major reforms to the health care system;
  • 51% of adults believe that Obama should promote reform legislation immediately after taking office; and
  • 68% believe that Obama will have the ability to implement a reform agenda.

That said, it’s unlikely that most Americans are familiar with the actual reform proposals being considered.

That’s because on average only 3.6% of national news coverage is made up of stories about health, according to a recent survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism initiative.

And of the stories about health or health care:

  • The largest proportion (41.7%) focuses on treatments for, or research about, specific diseases or conditions;
  • One-third of the coverage (30.9%) examines public health issues and potential epidemics; and
  • Only 27.4% of the stories are actually about health policy or the well-being of the U.S. health care system itself.

As a result, news about health policy and the health care system received less than 1% of total news coverage during the period of the study.

The survey examined coverage across a number of media outlets, including 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 3,513 stories were analyzed over the 18-month survey period, from January 2007 to June 2008.

Putting These Findings into Perspective

3.6% does sound very small when considering total news coverage.

However, health news was the 8th biggest category when compared with coverage of other subjects.

  • Health care placed dramatically behind topics such as government agencies (5.3%), crime (11%) and political campaigns (21.3%).
  • At the same time, health care received three times the amount of coverage given to education (.9%) and transportation (1.0%).

Individuals were also more likely to hear or read about health care depending on the type of media they used.

  • 8.3% of network news coverage addressed health care and health issues v. 1.4% of cable news reports.
  • Online news sites were less likely to discuss health care than established television networks and newspapers.
  • Today more Americans of all ages are moving to online news sources, and are giving up newspapers and magazines. It is important to note that many of these news sites do not write about health care.

Newer forms of media, including network morning news, radio shows and online sources, were also less likely to deliver stories related to health care policy.

In comparison, newspapers and the PBS show, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, devoted substantially more time to explaining and analyzing the health care system and its future prognosis.

These two sources designated 40% of their health coverage to health care policy and tended to “paint a picture of a system in trouble: states sometimes at odds with the federal government, and searching for independent solutions, employers seeking to cut costs; consumers- both insured and uninsured- struggling to pay soaring medical costs; and insurers trying to pare down their rolls.”

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