Social or Economic Concerns: How News and Women's Magazines Framed Breast Cancer in the 1990s

Article excerpt

Media framing of complex diseases is important because the way these are presented may affect individuals' choices regarding health. The authors analyzed 127 articles on breast cancer from three news magazines and four women's magazines to examine whether they focused on social or economic issues. Two content analysis methods were used to determine the issues, sources, and frames. Issues in news and women's magazines were significantly different, with women's magazines offering more personal stories and comprehensive information. Although both presented information on prevention and treatment, news magazines framed breast cancer from an economic angle, focusing on insurance and research funding.

The news media regularly disseminate the latest developments in our understanding of health and wellness issues. For diseases such as breast cancer, the media provide information about new treatments, diagnostic methods, and likely risk factors. But complex diseases without a cure may be difficult for the news media to cover in a contextual manner due to the time, space, and budgetary constraints that journalists face. These practical restrictions, along with the tendency for news to be "fragmented and ephemeral," may not allow readers to place the disease in context, thus seriously diminishing the public's understanding of cancer.1

In society, a constant tension exists between the social versus the economic health and well-being of people.2 This tension is magnified in news media because resources are scarce, and decisions must be made about what stories to cover and how they are presented. News "framing" refers to this selection and emphasis of certain aspects of issues. For magazines, these aspects include elements of drama and timeliness, which some critics argue are intended to increase profits rather than offer balance.3 Nonetheless, magazines have long been a top source of cancer information for Americans,4 especially for women, who tend to rely on magazines in seeking information about breast cancer.5

Because of this reliance, it is important that news media present complete and accurate portrayals of health issues. Increasingly, social scientists believe that women's health problems must be understood as socially, culturally, and economically produced. Ruzek, Olesen, and Clarke state that the media often take women's health out of context, presenting unrealistic views of cures and prematurely reporting progress.6

They contend that beliefs about health care support large private and public investments in biomedicine. An earlier study of breast cancer coverage indicated the media were more attentive to shifting relationships and priorities within the health care industry than they were to the public interest, reflected in a steadily increasing breast cancer mortality rate.7 Previous studies also note that expensive technology and medical experts dominate the text, with prevention seldom mentioned.8 These findings suggest that economic interests tend to influence joumalists' framing of women's health issues.

The news media seldom focus on social and/or human interest angles in reporting cancer news, with less than 7 percent of newspaper coverage on cancer comprising human interest angles, such as personal survival or coping stories.9 However, social concerns are vital in helping women make sense of their risks and prognosis in facing breast cancer. According to Parrott, the identification of linguistic discontinuities or gaps in communication between the media and audience is critical to the success of communicating with women.10

In this study, we will examine how selected women's magazines and general news magazines framed information concerning breast cancer during the 1990s. In 1990, estimates of breast cancer among U.S. women jumped to one in ten.11 In 1990, Congress approved a bill that allowed Medicare to cover biannual mammograms for women over 65, as well as screening for poor women in four states. …