Thursday, June 9, 2011

Coverage of common causes of death in the UK media

Is there a correlation between the diseases you read about in the news and what is actually likely to kill you?

Williamson, Skinner and Hocken (2011) studied the 10 most daily read newspapers in the UK s (The Sun, Daily Mail, The Mirror, The Telegraph, The Times, Daily Express, Daily Star, The Guardian, The Independent and the Financial Times) for a year, in order to see whether there's a correlation between the media reporting of illness and death and actual statistics.

Most common causes of death in the UK, according to the Office for National Statistics (table from the paper)

They searched each paper's site and recognized 18,482 articles covering the most common causes of death in the UK. They used 'media friendly' terms when it was necessary (for example: 'heart attack' instead of ‘ischaemic heart disease’).

The most common conditions reported were the Flu/pneumonia (6525 articles, 35.2%), ischaemic heart disease (3849 articles, 20.8%) and dementia (2577 articles, 13.9%). The least reported conditions were obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) (95 articles, 0.5% of total) and heart failure (547 articles, 3%).

Pneumonia: third most common cause of death in the UK

In comparison with the number of deaths they cause every year, the Flu ⁄ pneumonia, prostate cancer, dementia and breast cancer have been mentioned extensively in the media. On the other hand, Cerebrovascular accidents (CVAs) and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are very underrepresented in the media.

The study suffers from several flaws: for one, the researchers don't know in which context their search terms appeared in the media; why were these diseases reported? They hypothesize, for example, that "prostate cancer" could have been reported because of the coverage of the Libyan Lockerbie bomber, Al-Meghari, or that the search term 'flu' could actually been 'swine flu' but they can't be sure.

There is, in my opinion, a large difference between a story mentioning prostate cancer as the reason for Al-Meghari's release from prison and a story about prostate cancer from the medical point of view. The Swine Flu has been indeed covered intensively lately, but that doesn't mean that the 'regular' flu has been covered, even though it's a common cause of death. The Swine Flu falls under 'health scare' while the regular flu doesn't, and treating both as 'flu' kind of misses the point. This study is more about "how many times diseases' names appear in the press" than about "the media and representations of common diseases".

Williamson, J.M., Skinner, C. I., & Hocken, D.B. (2011). Death and illness as depicted in the media International journal of clinical practice, 65 (5) : 21489079

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