Health-Related Content in Daily Newspaper Comic Strips: A Content Analysis with Implications for Health Education
Gower, Dan L., Education
Newspaper comic strips are the most popular feature in newspapers and an important source of information for their readers. Seventy-five percent of those who read newspapers read the comics (Hughes, 1988, p. 27). When the editors of the Houston Chronicle surveyed their readers about the comics, not only did 20,000 readers respond but they used their own postage and many wrote lengthy letters to the newspaper (Hughes, 1988, p. 27).
A clear illustration of the importance of comic strips to newspaper readers was provided when a newsprint strike in 1973 caused a paper shortage, and the editors of the Kansas City Star responded to the shortage by reducing the size of the comic strips and omitting the editorial page. Within two days, a total of 140 telephone complaints were received. Two complaints were concerned with the omission of the editorial page; nine dealt with the omission of daytime TV listings; one, with the omission of the space between paragraphs; two complained about the reduction in size of the crossword puzzle (which in actuality had not been reduced); two found the Sunday paper too big; two argued against mixing ads and news; and 122 logged complaints were about the reduction in the size of the comics (Kansas City Star, "Speaking the Public Mind;' 1973, p. 38).
Not only do newspaper readers in general like the comic strips, but students like comic strips and comic books. This has led many educators to examine the possible use of comics as teaching tools. Smith (1985) used the copying of comic strips as a means to examine artistic behaviors in elementary school children. Chilcoat (1988) described the use of comic books in teaching history. Because children like to use onomatopoeic words, such as "smash, crack, clunk, ping, clang, klink and kaplop," teachers can employ comic strips, replete with such words, to help students experience the expressiveness of their language (Words That Pop, 1988, p. 81). Hearing-impaired students in a study by Wilbur and Goodhart (1985) were tested for recognition of indefinite pronouns and quantifiers, using material in the form of comic books.
Given that the comics have been utilized in the classroom successfully, one academic area in which comics are germane is health education. An illustration of this potential is provided by a study in which Rose (1958) examined the reactions of teenagers to a mental health episode in the comic strip Rex Morgan, M.D.. Written by a psychiatrist, this syndicated comic strip was concerned with the medical and personal problems encountered by the young physician, Dr. Rex Morgan, and his nurse. This particular segment, continuing through the daily and Sunday strips, dealt with a paranoid psychotic. Rose concluded that the comic strip affected the attitudes of a statistically significant number of youthful readers when the strip had a serious message and was competently presented, even when the subject was a sensitive topic such as mental illness.
More recently, Breed and DeFoe (1981) examined messages about alcohol contained in superhero comic strips. They found that themes related to alcohol were to be found in such comics and that they provide a valuable vehicle for teaching alcohol education.
If comic strips can be used as health education material, the question remains whether health-related themes occur frequently enough in comic strips for them to be successfully mined for teaching examples. An examination of the frequency with which such topics are to be found in newspaper comic strips would be of value to educators. An unpublished thesis by Sofalvi (1985), and a shorter published paper (Sofalvi & Drolet, 1986), conducted a content analysis of health-related topics in the Sunday comic strips of 1956, 1968, 1972, and 1980. The purpose was to count the frequency of various health-related topics in those strips and to identify in which comic strips they appeared most frequently.
This study examines the frequency of health-related topics in daily comic strips from 1980 through 1984, overlapping the last period of Sofalvi's study of Sunday comics. …