A study of television news and current affairs coverage of health issues has shown that health and medicine are leading news themes covered by TV news and current affairs but often-complex issues are reduced to short and simple messages to fit the rigid constraints of news reporting.
Conducted by Prof Simon Chapman and colleagues from the School of Public Health, University of Sydney, the study reviewed the content of more than 11,000 health-related news and current affairs items on Sydney free-to-air television over 47 months between May 2005 and March 2009.
The study is published in the latest edition of the Medical Journal of Australia
Prof Chapman says that media coverage can influence people's agendas about health, and the media play a central role in the way the public perceives medical treatments.
"Media coverage can affect community opinions about government priorities in health," he says.
The study states that most high-priority public health issues have been the focus of intensive and extended media coverage, but others miss out because they are not seen as newsworthy.
Prof Chapman advises health workers wishing to participate in news coverage to be aware that complex issues are reduced to fit the time constraints and presentation formulas of the news media.
"Health advocates should plan their communication strategies to accommodate these constraints," he says.
Those interviewed for TV about health matters should expect to have just 7.2 seconds on a news program and 8.9 seconds on a current affairs program in which to convey their message.
Except for high-importance reports, news is rarely broadcast live. Reporters typically pre-record interviews with news actors and, together with news editors, select succinct soundbites.
This can present challenges to health workers and researchers who are used to communicating through elaborate and detailed research reports, via the precision and academic conventions of scholarly writing, and in professional meetings such as conferences, lectures and seminars.
The Medical Journal of Australia
is a publication of the Australian Medical Association.