The Relationship between Editorial and Advertising Content about Tobacco and Alcohol in United States Newspapers: An Exploratory Study

Article excerpt

Using a nationally representative sample, this study examined the possible relationship between amount of alcohol and tobacco advertising and related news-editorial content. This study found less tobacco and alcohol advertising in newspapers than did previous research and no relationship between coverage and number of advertisements.

Health threats from alcohol and tobacco use are a global concern among policymakers, medical professionals, and researchers. One noted tobacco researcher called smoking's devastation the paramount behavioral cause of death designed by humans, killing an estimated 5 million people per year.1 Furthermore, alcohol abuse was estimated as of 1998 to cost the United States $185 billion per year.2

Investigating how people learn about alcohol and tobacco and their reasons for using, abusing, and ceasing to use these substances is necessary before solutions to their associated health problems become viable. There is increasing evidence that tobacco and alcohol advertising is one of the factors influencing cognitions about these products as well as influencing uptake and consumption.3 The present study provides a thorough assessment of the extent of such advertising in newspapers, using a nationally representative sample of U.S. newspapers, taking into account newspaper size and regional differences, and investigating whether such advertising might have influenced editorial coverage in these newspapers.

Background

There is growing evidence that advertising of alcohol and tobacco may influence attitudes and behavior, especially among youth, as dis- cussed below. Because alcohol and tobacco are controlled substances, frequently marketed to youth, for whom their consumption is illegal, they are commonly associated with adulthood, which makes them desirable for underaged consumers.4 Past research, albeit spotty, has documented substantial alcohol and tobacco advertising in media, possibly lending to the legitimization of their use among adults. Policymakers have argued that consumption of alcohol and tobacco incurs tremendous social costs, leading to bans in terms of advertising and placement and marketing restrictions where youth are targeted.5 With increased public policy concern over the dangers associated with consuming these controlled substances, associated changes in advertising have resulted in fewer alcohol and tobacco newspaper advertisements at the same time coverage of their corresponding health dangers may be on the increase. This beckons the question of the possible relationship between the commercial and the reportorial sides of these products in the media. Assessing the extent of such advertising in newspapers, then, has obvious relevance from both public policy and public health perspectives.

The question of tobacco and alcohol advertising in newspapers has particular importance to journalists. Work done in the 1990s provided strong evidence that, at least in the case of U.S. magazines, the amount of news and feature content devoted to tobacco risks, smoking cessation, and other such topics was negatively related to the amount of tobacco advertising in the magazines.6 Given the central importance of the separation of advertising influence from editorial decisions in the ethos of American journalism, an assessment of such influence in contemporary newspapers is perhaps overdue.

Newspaper reporting on controlled substances has been ignored in media research.7 This medium, which has historically remained relatively immune from regulation, given First Amendment protection, is important to study. From the standpoint of political-economic theory, newspapers have historically kept advertising and news-editorial functions separated as an institutional practice, yet content and authences are becoming increasingly commoditized.8 According to political-economic theories, a relationship exists between the way media are structured economically and the ideology of media content. …