Network News Coverage of Breast Cancer, 1974 to 2003

Article excerpt

This study content analyzed 602 news story abstracts on breast cancer from the three major TV networks during the past three decades (1974 to 2003). The amount of news coverage on breast cancer increased during the time period. Some topics, such as prevention and treatment, increased significantly, whereas other issues, such as surgery and celebrities, decreased. The use of thematic frames and discussion of research developments increased across time, whereas other characteristics of the coverage did not change, such as the dominant citation of medical doctors as sources.

Mass media are partly responsible for promoting a healthier society by providing useful health information to their audiences and delivering news about the latest developments on health issues. Many women question health information from drug companies and physicians who are influenced by these manufacturers1 and rely more on informational sources such as the news and other media, including the Internet.2 Consequently, health communicators working for various health organizations depend on mass media to disseminate information.3

Many women in America are concerned about their chance of developing breast cancer; nearly one in every three female cancer patients is diagnosed with breast cancer.4 A woman's risk of developing breast cancer was 1 in 20 in 1960 but is 1 in 8 today. Currently, a woman in the United States is diagnosed with breast cancer every three minutes.5

For women seeking health information, magazines have served as one of the best sources because of their in-depth coverage of many female-specific diseases,6 including breast cancer. Although magazines provide greater depth of information about breast cancer, TV news is a primary source of health information and has the power to raise initial public awareness about the disease. In addition, breast cancer stories on TV news, because of its broad scope in reaching various kinds of audiences, can heighten awareness not only among women, whether or not they are actively searching for such information, but also their family members. TV news is an important informational conduit for breast cancer, and its selection and emphasis on certain aspects of breast cancer is important to the public.7

Despite its importance, few studies have investigated breast cancer coverage on TV networks over time. In this study, content analysis was performed on the 602 evening news abstracts on breast cancer for the three major TV networks during the past three decades (1974 to 2003). The purpose of this study was to examine (1) the number of news reports and amount of time devoted to breast cancer during this time period; (2) the types of issues in these reports; (3) the types of frames used in these reports; and (4) the types of sources cited in these reports. The sample was divided into three ten-year periods to assess changes across time.

Literature Review

Among the many types of cancers, breast cancer is the most frequently diagnosed in American women. Various efforts were made during the 1990s to decrease the mortality rate from breast cancer. For example, after 1990, women over 65 were able to get free biannual mammograms, and poor women in four states could receive free breast cancer screening.8 In 1994, the National Cancer Institute announced increased funding for breast cancer.9 Although the breast cancer mortality rate has decreased in the United States,10 it remains the third leading cause of death in American women after heart disease and lung cancer; approximately 40,000 women were expected to die from this disease in 2003." Consequently, medical researchers and mass media have paid considerable attention to this disease.

Increased Media Attention to Breast Cancer. Studies show that mass media coverage of breast cancer has increased significantly since the 1970s. For example, Corbett and Mori wrote that the New York Times and all U.S. magazines published only three breast cancer stories in 1960, but coverage increased to 149 stories in 1995. …