News media reporting of health issues lacks balance and fails to highlight proven health risks, says The King's Fund study

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News coverage of health issues is seriously out of proportion with actual risks to health and fails to reflect mortality risks shown in health data, according to a study of health-related coverage in the media published today by The King's Fund.

Health in the News: Risk, reporting and media influence is based on an analysis of health-related stories in three BBC news programmes - the Ten O'clock News, Newsnight and BBC Radio 5 Live's 8.00am News - and three newspapers - the Daily Mirror, the Daily Mail and The Guardian. It compared the volume of reporting on specific health risks with the number of deaths attributed to those risks. For example, 8,571 people died from smoking for each news story on the health risks of smoking, compared with 0.33 deaths for each story on vCJD (the human variant of 'mad cow' disease).

The study concluded that the news agendas of the print and broadcast media were skewed heavily towards dramatic stories such as 'crises' in the NHS and major health 'scares', rather than issues that statistically have a greater impact on health, such as smoking, obesity, mental health and alcohol misuse.

Health experts and policy makers interviewed for the study were almost universally dissatisfied with the way health-related matters were covered in the news media. They said issues that posed minimal risks, such as the alleged link between the MMR vaccine and autism, were given too much prominence over proven health risks. There was broad agreement among all interviewees that there could be no direct correlation between what conditions cause the most deaths and what gets most news coverage, but many agreed that more careful consideration was needed on all sides about the balance of news reporting of health issues.

Report author Roger Harrabin, who conducted the research on sabbatical from the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, said:

'As journalists we need to give our audiences new news, not old news - but we shouldn't forget that policy-makers are often influenced by what they see in the media. The public may also alter their behaviour in ways that affect their health because of information and advice they get from the media, such as parents refusing to let their children have the combined MMR vaccination after intense coverage linking the MMR jab with autism. Sometimes we in the media may actually contribute to an increase, rather than a decrease, in health risks.'

The King's Fund health policy director and report co-author Anna Coote said:

'Proven health risks rarely receive any media coverage while stories about the NHS in crisis and unusual hazards such as the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus, which pose relatively little danger, can occupy the headlines for weeks on end. The media's own news values are bound to be paramount, but we would like to see the balance of news coverage brought into closer alignment with proven health risks.'

However, the study did acknowledge that the government is making efforts to improve the way risks are communicated. It also called for a public debate about health, health care, risk and reporting, about the respective roles of different news outlets in communicating health-related issues, and about how to achieve a closer match between proven health risks and news coverage without jeopardising the freedom of the media or their role in holding governments and experts to account.

Notes to editors

1. Over a year to September 2001, three BBC news programmes were studied: two on television, the Ten O' Clock News and Newsnight, and one on radio, 5 Live's 8.00am News. This period was chosen to avoid the effects of September 11, which for a while severely disrupted patterns of reporting. The newspaper analysis covered a more recent period, October to December 2002. It included The Guardian, the Daily Mirror and the Daily Mail, and took account of the different patterns of coverage in news and features pages. The study was limited and should be regarded as indicative rather than definitive.

2. For further information, interviews and review copies, please contact Daniel Reynolds in the King's Fund public affairs office on 020 7307 2581 or 07831 554927.