Media's Under-Coverage of Disease

By News on the Record Archives
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The news media obsessively covers today's political dramas — often at the expense of topics such as life-threatening diseases, which tend to be much more relevant to our health and daily lives. It's time to create a better balance in media coverage.

On October 5, The Wall Street Journal devoted its Saturday Essay to cancer. The essay, by Columbia University professor Azra Raza, Ph.D., was adapted from her book The First Cell and the Human Costs of Pursuing Cancer to the Last, which was published on October 15.

Dr. Raza began by soberly observing that the survival rates of many types of cancer have barely improved at all since the 1970s: Despite the skyrocketing costs of cancer treatments (and their near-universal unpleasantness for patients), these treatments are not significantly improving outcomes. Dr. Raza concluded her essay with the argument that the focus — when it comes to fighting cancer — needs to move towards identifying the first cells of the disease, rather than seeking to treat it once it's much further along.

Perhaps due to the number of diagnoses each year, cancer is one of the more frequently discussed ailments. But what about other diseases, ailments, and common causes of death?

In May, Oxford University's Our World in Data published an overview of a study conducted by students at the University of California, San Diego, seeking to quantify the degree to which media coverage of types of death reflected their actual number. The study compared "mentions of causes of deaths" in The New York Times and The Guardian in 2016, as compared to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) statistics on actual causes of death in the United States. The common hypothesis that the news media prefers to feature violent deaths instead of far more prevalent killers is proven overwhelmingly correct by the data.

In the United States, the leading causes of deaths, according to the CDC, are — in descending order — heart disease (30.2 percent); cancer (29.5 percent); road incidents, falls, and accidents (7.6 percent), lower respiratory disease (7.4 percent), and Alzheimer's disease (5.6 percent). Judging by the news, however, one would likely never suspect it. During the period of study, nearly 36 percent of New York Times stories that mentioned a cause of death discussed death due to terrorism. The next 33.4 percent of stories discussing death covered victims of homicide and suicide. As a share of the overall American deaths, terrorism accounted for less than 0.01 percent, homicide 0.9 percent, and suicide 1.8 percent. The breakdown was similar at The Guardian, with an overemphasis on deaths by violence.

Most grossly underrepresented in both publications was heart disease (registering approximately 2 percent of news stories), followed closely by Alzheimer's disease and kidney disease, neither of which cracked more than 1 percent of stories. In both papers, however, cancer remained relatively well-covered, and strokes (responsible for 4.9 percent of American deaths) remained mostly in proportion, with roughly 5 percent of coverage at both papers.

Of course, deaths likely shouldn't be reported in direct proportion to their frequency, given that rarer causes of death tend to be more newsworthy. But the degree of underrepresentation of disease coverage remains striking.

There are some news outlets that cover disease with some success. The Well section of The New York Times certainly engages with many common health conditions; however, it does so more from a self-help perspective, as opposed to an objective rendering of the current state of research or policy. The Hill is the publication that arguably does best in covering illness, particularly in its opinion section, which offers a platform to many medical researchers. For instance, The Hill is one of the few places in the news space to routinely cover tropical diseases. With the exception of the exhaustive coverage of the 2013–2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, comparatively little attention is paid to prevalent killers in much of the developing world, such as malaria.

Closer to home, one would think that news outlets would offer even a fraction of the attention regularly given to political theater to discussing disease-related news. Recently, there has been President Trump's July executive order aimed at lowering the rate of "end-stage kidney disease by 25 percent by 2030," the Autism CARES Act signed into law by the president on September 30, and new potential developments in Alzheimer's treatment announced last week. Sure, there might be broad coverage of healthcare policy from "Medicare for all" to "Repeal and Replace [Obamacare]," but when it comes to covering the details of disease and its research, news media falls overwhelming short.

Perhaps some recent projects in the legal and criminal justice news space might serve as a blueprint for how news media can better cover disease. The Marshall Project has gained considerable notice for its efforts to closely examine criminal justice topics, just as blogs such as The Volokh Conspiracy (previously housed by The Washington Post) and SCOTUSblog have done in popularizing legal news that might previously have been lost in the fine print — or in the back pages of a newspaper. Although medical schools do, of course, publicly release findings, they are too often lost in the noise of the news space.

As the news media devotes endless coverage to every twist and turn of the drama between the White House and House Democrats, one would think that at least a fraction of that coverage might go to chronicling the state of medical research, National Institutes of Health (NIH) budgets,  or the pharmaceutical industry — all of which have the potential to be much more relevant to many of our lives. Amid the never-ending squabbles of partisan politics, the news media would be wise to build on The New York Times and The Hill's start and give health conditions the place they deserve in our collective attention.

Photo credit: Unsplash - UrineDrugTest 

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