How does the media talk about health?

The media both reflects and shapes public thinking. Understanding how the media communicates issues around health and health inequalities helps us understand both the challenges and opportunities we face in broadening out the debate on health. As part of their research, FrameWorks analysed a random sample of 209 newspaper articles about health and 182 materials from third-sector organisations to identify common narratives about the determinants of health.

They found that these narratives tended to reinforce an individualistic understanding of health. When discussing the determinants of health, media materials mentioned behavioural factors slightly more often than social factors. However, tellingly, when talking about solutions they focused primarily on the role of individuals and families (for example, raising public awareness or encouraging different dietary choices) and health care (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Who is targeted by the solutions mentioned in 209 newspaper articles about health in 2016?

Source: Adapted from Levay et al.

One common media narrative – ‘health consumerism’ – locates the causes of, and solutions to, health issues entirely in people’s choices and behaviours; social and environmental factors are wholly absent from this narrative. This approach addresses the readers as consumers, and highlights the importance of individuals’ decisions about purchasing various products – for example, healthy food or gym memberships.

Where media stories discussed solutions to health problems, they similarly focused on changes in individual and family behaviour, and health care. This narrative can constrain the public’s appreciation of the available solutions for improving health and reducing health inequalities.

The media analysis also found a lack of discussion about health inequalities in the news (Figure 4). While there was some limited discussion about health inequalities in relation to location, gender or socioeconomic status, there was very little in relation to factors such as ethnicity, sexual orientation or disability. This means that the public does not consistently hear about the true scale and nature of health inequalities, much less the inequalities in power that underlie them.

Figure 4: Level of attention devoted to health inequalities in 209 newspaper articles about health in 2016

* FrameWorks researchers selected a random sampling of articles (print and online) from these sources using a search strategy designed to capture a range of topics related to health. Details are given in Levay et al.8

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