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Rating media health coverage

August 28th, 2005

Dr Petra

Press Gazette reports this week on a report for the Department of Health (DoH) assessing health news coverage in UK regional and national papers.

The research calculated number of health stories, their prominence within a paper and newspaper circulation rates. Coverage was further categorised as ‘positive’, ‘negative’ or ‘neutral’.

The research identified 661 stories about the NHS in the press in December 2004. 14% were classed as positive, 46% negative and 40% neutral.

The Daily Mail was found to have the biggest national impact, followed by The Sun and Mirror. Unfortunately whilst the Mail had the biggest impact factor, it was also the most likely to report negatively on the NHS.

Within the Press Gazette feature there were complaints from journalists and health correspondents who stated they either did provide good coverage or maintained the right to report on stories as they wished – meaning if something was negative they’d say so.

The DoH paid a consultancy firm £40,000 to carry out this media analysis between November-December 2004. I find it interesting this company chose to analyse using the terms ‘positive’, ‘negative’ and ‘neutral’ but didn’t look at accuracy.

A large proportion of health stories in the media are not accurately reported. Journalism schools, media analysis and medical researchers have highlighted major concerns about the quality of health reporting. This includes journalists misunderstanding key data, not following up sources, citing ‘experts’ who’re not truly qualified in health, or uncritically reporting PR plugs from pharmaceutical companies.

Before journalists get picky with the DoH research (which admittedly could have been better) they could do well to look at the quality of their health coverage not in terms of positive/negative/neutral coverage – but in terms of accuracy.

And at a time when our health service is strapped for cash the DoH might want to consider hiring media researchers who might charge a little less than £40,000 for a month’s analysis and who’re able to complete something that is robust, critical and above all useful. I don’t really want to know about abstract positive, negative or neutral coverage – but I need to know if it is right.

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