Telling stories: News media, health literacy and public policy in Canada
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Mass media are very influential in shaping discourses about health but few studies have examined the extent to which newspaper coverage of such stories reflect issues embedded in health policy documents. We estimate the relative distribution of health stories using content analysis. Nine meta-topics are used to sort stories across a range of major influences shaping the health status of populations adapted from the document Toward a Healthy Future (Second Report on the Health of Canadians (1999)) (TAHF). A total of 4732 stories were analyzed from 13 Canadian daily newspapers (10 English, 3 French language) using a constructed week per quarter method. Stories were sampled from each chosen newspaper for the years 1993, 1995, 1997 and 2001. 72% (n=3405) of stories in this analysis were from English-language papers, 28% (n=1327) were from French-language papers. Topics related to health care (dealing either with issues of service provision and delivery or management and regulation) dominated newspaper stories, accounting for 65% of all stories. Physical environment topics accounted for about 13% of all stories, the socio-economic environment about 6% of stories, personal health practices about 5% of stories, and scientific advances in health research about 4% of stories. Other influences upon health identified in TAHF were rarely mentioned. The overall prominence of topics in newspapers is not consistent with the relative importance assigned to health influences in TAHF. Canadian newspapers rarely report on socio-economic influences frequently cited in the research literature (and reflected in TAHF) as being most influential in shaping population health outcomes.
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