AGENDA-BUILDING, SOURCE SELECTION AND HEALTH NEWS AT LOCAL TELEVISION
THE FIRST NATIONWIDE SURVEY OF LOCAL TELEVISION HEALTH REPORTERS
Andrea H. Tanner
School of Journalism and Mass Communications
University of South Carolina
Columbia, SC 29208
Phone: (803) 743-9066
e-mail: [log in to unmask]
Paper submitted to the Science Communications Interest Group
Kansas City, Missouri
July 30 – August 2
AV needs: hook-up and projector for laptop computer
This study was the first nationwide examination of local television news
health reporters looking at health and medical newsgathering from the
reporters' perspective. Data from this study revealed significant insight
into how these health reporters receive ideas for their health stories and
what influences a health reporter to cover a particular topic. The
findings suggest a theoretical link between agenda-building and health
reporting, suggesting a health reporter's reliance on sources is
exacerbated by the technical nature of health and medical news.
Television stations across the country promote it as "news you can use."
Critics call it "news lite." But whatever the label, health, medical and
consumer news stories are almost impossible to miss. In fact, since the
September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon
and the subsequent anthrax scare, health news seems to have become a
national obsession to both journalists and news consumers. Instead of news
dealing with unscrupulous politicians, natural disasters and social
security, the lead news stories on both the national and local level are
focusing on anthrax cures, smallpox vaccinations and keeping yourself safe
But the popularity of health news stories certainly precedes the anthrax
scare in the United States. Before September 11, 2001 a television news
viewer could tune in to almost any local, network or cable news channel and
be bombarded with stories dealing with dieting, male menopause, flu,
drinking and driving, and the dangers of using a car phone – just to name a
few. The dissemination of health news was a booming industry in the 1990s
and the trend seems to be continuing as the new millennium
progresses. According to Sandy Socolow, a former executive producer for
Walter Cronkite at CBS, "all three [network] broadcasts are mesmerized by
anything that involves the human body – and I'm not talking about sex."
Though there's no mistaking that health care issues receive a great deal
of media attention nationwide, news that may help viewers lose weight or
find a family doctor is not only flourishing at the network level. Much of
the attention given to health news is at the local level, where in recent
years local television news has taken on an increasing importance in
informing citizens about their world. In fact, local news is watched
more than its network counterpart.
Whereas Americans are watching more local news, research indicates that
many local news viewers would like to see more health stories on the
news. A 1993 Gallup poll asked whether the media gave enough attention to
health issues. Thirty-five percent said they would like to see "a lot
more." Only 6 percent said they would like to see "a little" or "a lot
less" health news.
Local television news organizations appear to be giving their viewers more
of what they want to watch. A 1997 study of local television news content
gave hard data confirming the trend: health, crime, weather and natural
disaster news is pushing out coverage of government and politics -- what
used to be the primary coverage of local television news. The study
found that seven percent of all stories at the local news level dealt with
health and medicine.
To keep up with viewers' demand for health-related news, many local
television news stations now employ their own health reporter who is
showcased daily in his or her own health segment of the newscast. In
addition, local news managers, primarily in the larger media markets, are
employing physicians to relate this information to the public. According to
Gary Switzer, the number of physician-broadcasters employed at local
stations increased during the 1990s.
But more health content on local television news does not necessarily lead
to an increase of in-depth, non-biased health and medical television news
stories put together by well-trained and knowledgeable medical and science
reporters. Many medical reporters have no medical training and cannot
distinguish the difference between relevant, unbiased information and
marketing releases from pharmaceutical and medical
manufacturers. This perhaps suggests that a health reporter's lack of
medical expertise and training, coupled with the daily deadline pressure,
may encourage a health reporter to air a story simply because the story is
convenient and accessible. Therefore, it's not necessarily the best or
most accurate health information that is released by the media to the
public, but sometimes the information that is packaged and marketed in the
This study examines the health reporting practices of local network
affiliate television news health reporters in the United
States. Specifically, the researcher seeks to determine what influences
these television news health reporters to cover a specific health topic
from all potential health stories. The researcher will also examine why a
health reporter chooses to use a particular source when covering a
health-related story. In addition, this study will also examine how these
sources of information influence a health reporter's decision-making
process as he or she decides what will ultimately be broadcast to the public.
Theoretically, this study will be based upon the fourth and latest phase of
agenda-setting research. In the past, many communication researchers
assumed that the media alone set the agenda for what issues media consumers
think about. Such assumptions were examined during the first phase of
agenda-setting research, begun in the early 1970s by Maxwell McCombs and
Donald Shaw. The current research expands such traditional
agenda-setting research and explores the theory of agenda-building – a term
for the fourth and most recent phase of agenda-setting research that
suggests organizations in society, media-savvy experts and officials, and
newsroom decision-makers together set the agenda as to what will be
broadcast or printed in the media.
This was the first nationwide quantitative analysis of local television
news health reporters, thus giving a unique look at health and medical
newsgathering from the reporters' perspective. Previous studies have
primarily focused on medical and health
news as covered by the national media outlets (such as network news and
newspapers and magazines such as The New York Times, USA Today and Time
magazine). Furthermore, most of these studies have consisted of a content
analysis of media coverage. By examining health newsgathering from the
reporters' perspective, the researcher was able to determine why certain
topics were or were not covered and what sources health reporters used when
covering stories and finding possible story ideas.
In addition, this research examined whether these journalists' reported
that they relied on certain health practitioners to aid them in finding
story ideas and, if so, did this suggest that the medical community was
setting the agenda for what could and should be covered by local television
Review of the Literature
Many factors influence what is included in media content. There is no
denying that reporters, producers and news managers at local television
stations ultimately decide what news is broadcast. The multiple daily
deadlines in television news coupled with the size of the "news hole" also
are deciding factors as to what makes air.
The lack of resources and reporters at local television stations also have
an effect on what is broadcast. According to Phyllis Kaniss of the
American Journalism Review, in today's newsroom the "bottomline" seems to
be more important than covering relevant news stories. Kaniss said, "local
television news content is decided by what is easy to do rather than what
needs to be done."
Although it can be argued that there are many influences that play a role
in shaping what information is broadcast to the public, for at least the
past twenty years, researchers examining the media's agenda have been
focusing on the sources of the raw material on which journalists
rely. According to researcher Herbert Gans it's the source who leads
the journalist to a particular news story.
Oscar Gandy, one of the first researchers to go beyond agenda-setting to
attempt to determine who sets the media agenda as well as how and for what
purpose it is set, believes the journalist/source relationship can be
interpreted as basic economics. Because reporters must meet deadlines
and television news producers must fill the news hole, these journalists
must decide whether to invest time pursuing one source rather than another,
all based on the return the journalist expects to receive from his
source. In other words, a source who has quickly provided truthful
information that was easily transferable into a news story is much more
likely to be chosen over a source who has misled or ignored the journalist
in the past.
This regular contact between a journalist and his sources may also result
in hesitancy on the journalist's part to reveal information that might harm
the relationship with the source. This is especially the case in
science and health reporting where reporters depend on sources from the
health and science community to explain the technical nature of a certain
finding or to tell them why a certain story is of particular importance.
According to Gandy, journalists may choose sources for a story for other
reasons as well. For instance, journalists seem to identify bureaucratic
sources as the most reliable source, thus these bureaucrats are the ones
most often giving a soundbite on a television broadcast or quoted in the
newspaper. This tendency is exacerbated by the willingness of
reporters to accept information from these routine sources without
questioning the information.
Judy VanSlyke Turk studied the influence public information officers for
six state agencies in Louisiana had on the agenda of news reported about
their agencies in daily newspapers in the state. She found that
newspapers were more likely to use public relations information in
published stories than to dispose of it. In fact, the study found that
almost half of the information provided was used in news stories. Again,
this reiterates the source/journalist relationship and how this
relationship could have a profound effect on what news is disseminated.
Deciding What News Makes it to Air
In a 1990 study exploring how local television learns what is news, John
McManus examined how medium-sized, large and very large local television
news organizations learn what in their environments is
newsworthy. McManus found that all the stations examined were
essentially passive in their news discovery, meaning that events and
information were learned from individuals promoting an event or an issue or
from other news organizations. This type of passive news discovery can be
done without ever leaving or even phoning outside the newsroom and includes
releases, newspapers, television competitors and wire services. Passive
news discovery suggests that public relations and promotions from
government and big corporations may help set the public agenda by giving
news professionals the information needed to cover a story with minimal
costs to the news organizations.
A 1974 study by John Dimmick found that deciding on stories for a
television newscast can be broken down into two distinctive activities:
sensing and valuation. According to Dimmick, sensing occurs in a
television newsroom when decision makers evaluate numerous story ideas
against news selection criteria in order to select potential news stories
for a television newscast. Once potential news stories have been selected,
valuation then occurs. Valuation happens when decision makers take the
potential news stories and decide which stories will become actual news
stories for broadcast.
Gant and Dimmick reexamined sensing, valuation and news criteria in
their 2000 study. After conducting a seven-week field study at a
mid-30th market network affiliate, they found that 42 percent of news story
ideas survived sensing and valuation to ultimately make air. This meant
that nearly half of all news story ideas entering the newsroom in some
manner eventually went on the air. Gant and Dimmick also found that
information subsidies did not prove to be critical during sensing or
valuation, but resource constraints and visual potential were good
predictors of which potential news stories would become actual stories on
the news. Most importantly, Gant and Dimmick's study suggests that during
valuation, decision-makers inside the newsroom, not information subsidies,
are the most influential sources.
How Health Information Becomes News
Unlike general news reporters, science and health reporters rely on
scientists and doctors as a primary source of information about complex
issues dealing with health, energy, environmental and economic
affairs. But these scientists also rely on the media. Without the
media, groundbreaking research would never reach the public. This reliance
on one another shapes how science becomes news and is ultimately relayed to
But this mutual relationship between scientists and the media is often
uncomfortable one. Researchers are hesitant to talk to the media
because they perceive science reporters as irresponsible and prone to
sensational reporting. The media blame doctors and scientists for
being secretive, unemotional, and unable to explain complicated research in
A 1999 study by Julia Corbett and Motomi Mori found that medical and health
reporting was different from general news reporting in that the media were
dependent on medical institutions for information concerning scientific
material and to explain the importance of this material. Corbett and
Mori found that because of the technical and specialized nature of science
and medical information, the medical community acted as a gatekeeper,
deciding what information would be released and explained to the media.
The idea of the science and medical communities as gatekeepers is
reiterated in a study of four major British newspapers. Vikki Entwistle
found that 86% of all medical stories began as press releases issued by two
prominent British medical journals. Entwistle found that the
journalists often scanned medical journals looking for story ideas, but
rarely had enough time to seek additional information from other sources.
Agenda-Building and the Media
In the past 20 years, more mass communications researchers seem to be
focusing on the theory of agenda-building, rather than solely investigating
the agenda-setting function of the press first examined by McCombs and
Shaw. Agenda-building theory posits that the media, government and society
reciprocally influence one another. For example, research by David Weaver
and Swanzy Elliot revealed that assuming the press is setting the public's
agenda is inaccurate. In fact, they found that, in many instances, the
press is simply passing on the ideas and priorities set by institutions in
society. This study suggests a source-media relationship in which the press
interacts with other institutions to create the public agenda.
Whereas Weaver and Elliott looked at newspaper coverage and
agenda-building, a 1987 study by Dan Berkowitz examined agenda-building as
related to both television and newspapers on a national and local
level. Berkowitz investigated the channels and sources from which
published news stories evolved to determine if television news used
different sources than did newspapers. One interesting finding from this
study was that television journalists relied heavily on routine news
events, such as press conferences and experts and officials for their news
sources, even more so than their newspaper counterparts. This suggests
that officials and executives dominate the agenda-building process,
especially in television news. These findings indeed support the
agenda-building theory in that journalists don't necessarily set the
agenda, instead the news agenda is set by the sources used to shape the
information reaching the mass audience.
Corbett and Mori's 1999 study examined the relationship between public
events, medical activities and press coverage of breast cancer over a
thirty-six year period. This study revealed how societal institutions
(in this case the medical community) impact and influence the reporting of
medical problems and if any other factors (public events regarding breast
cancer) also influence media coverage of public health issues.
The findings of the Corbett and Mori study do suggest a distinct
media-health link. There was a strong correlation between TV coverage and
breast cancer incidence, which the researchers say indicates that media
attention to breast cancer sent women to their doctors for mammograms.
In addition, there was evidence of a reciprocal relationship between the
medical community and the mass media. The researchers found a strong
association between breast cancer funding and print and TV coverage of
breast cancer in the same year. Furthermore, public events concerning
breast cancer also seemed to boost media and medical attention of the disease.
The overall objectives of this exploratory study were: a) to examine the
health reporting practices of local network affiliate television news
health reporters in the United States; b) determine how these health
reporters decide to cover a specific health topic from all potential health
stories; c) examine the health reporter/source relationship from the
journalist's perspective; and d) assess how these sources of information
influence a health reporter's decision-making process as he or she decides
what will ultimately be broadcast to the public.
Specifically, this study was designed to address the following research
R1: What influences a local television news health reporter to cover a
particular health topic?
R2: How do sources in the community influence the coverage of health news?
R3: According to the health reporter, what strategies or tools does a
source of health information
proactively use in order to set the agenda as to what health
stories make air?
Data Collection Method
To answer these questions, the researcher conducted a survey of television
health reporters at network television affiliates in the United States.
From the 2000 NAPTE Station Listing Guide 190 television stations were
selected from the 809 commercial broadcast stations listed as having news
departments. These stations were either independent local television
stations or stations affiliated with a national network including NBC, ABC,
CBS, FOX, WB, UPN and PAX. Stations affiliated with the Public Broadcast
Station (PBS) were excluded from the population.
Journalism undergraduate student volunteers at the University of
XXXXXXXXXXXXXX contacted these stations in order to obtain the name of the
health reporter at each station and find out if the reporter would rather
receive the questionnaire by mail or e-mail. In this particular study, a
local news health reporter was considered any reporter designated to cover
health and medical topics at their local
network affiliate in which they are employed. A health reporter may
specialize and only cover health news, or a health reporter may have to
cover general news as well as focus on health-related issues, but should be
generally considered the health or medical reporter at his or her
Of the 190 stations contacted, 72 of these stations were eliminated from
the original sample for one of the following reasons: the station did not
air regularly scheduled news programming, the station did not employ a
health reporter or the television station's phone number had been
disconnected or the station refused to participate in the study.
In an effort to increase the sample size, the researcher randomly selected
another 50 television stations. Each of these television stations was
contacted in the same manner as those in the original sample. After
resampling, the final sample size for this study was 139.
In order to increase the response rate, the questionnaire was designed to
be distributed via three different media, mail, on-line and fax. The
on-line version of the questionnaire was located on the University of
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX College of Journalism and Mass Communications web site at
The content was the same in all versions of the questionnaire and contained
both open- and close-ended questions. Section 1 of the questionnaire asked
respondents questions about their journalism career and the overall health
reporting practices at their current television station. Section 2 focused
on the factors that might influence the reporter to cover a particular
health topic. The purpose of Section 3 was to assess the effectiveness of
sources of health information as these sources work to get a particular
message to air on a newscast. Section 4 sought biographical and
Of the 139 health reporters who were selected from a random sample of
television news stations in the United States a total of 53 responded, for
a response rate of 38 percent.
Of the health reporters who responded, 13 subjects (25%) were from
television stations in large media markets (ADI 1-30), 21 (40%) were from
medium markets (ADI 31-100) and 18 (35%) were from stations in small media
markets (ADI 101+). The hours per weekday of local news programming at
these television stations ranged from one hour to nine hours with a median
of four hours of local news programming.
More than three-fourths (87%, n=45) of the respondents were female. As
pertaining to race, eight of ten (81%, n=42) respondents were Caucasian,
eight percent (n=4) were Hispanic and four percent (n=2) were African
American. Six percent (n=3) indicated that their race was something other
than the choices listed. One respondent was of Asian descent.
The age of the respondents ranged from 24 to 60 years of age with a median
age of 33. Almost three-fourths had completed a bachelor's degree (71%,
n=37) with 12 percent (n=6) indicating they had obtained a masters degree.
Only one respondent indicated he had received another type of advanced
degree. Eight respondents (15%) indicated that their highest level of
education was either high school, some college or an associate degree.
When describing the type of degree received, seven of ten (n=37) indicated
their degree was in broadcast, telecommunications, mass communications or
journalism. Other degrees received included political science (8%, n=4),
English, history or language (8%, n=4), and communications or speech
communications (8%, n=4). Only five percent of respondents (n=3) indicated
that they had a degree in a science-related field of study.
When asked if they had any other type of specialized training in the field
of health almost one-third (28%, n=15) answered yes, while more than
two-thirds (72%, n=38) said they had no special health training. Of those
indicating they had prior training in the field of health, six of ten
(64%, n=9) indicated that their training had consisted of either a seminar
or college courses on health and/or health issues, and nearly 30 percent
(n=4) indicated they had received some other type of health training. Only
one respondent had received a college degree in the health or medical field.
Regarding a respondent's entire journalism career, the number of years
that the respondents had been covering health issues ranged from six months
to 22 years with a mean of seven years. At the respondents' current
television station, most had been covering the health beat for an average
of four years.
More than half of the respondents (58%, n=30) said that their health
stories are included in a broadcast on a daily basis. Twenty percent
(n=11) indicated their health stories aired 2-3 times a week, and 15
percent (n=8) indicated their stories aired weekly. Three respondents (6%)
said their health stories air more than once a day.
As pertaining to the format of these health stories, more than half (55%,
n=29) of the health reporters indicated that their stories usually aired as
a reporter package (a story voiced by the reporter lasting approximately 1
minute to 1 minute, 30 seconds). Another quarter of respondents had to
fill even more airtime. Twenty-four percent (n=13) said their health
report consists of a live shot, or a live shot and a package, usually
lasting between two and three minutes in length.
Almost 20 percent (17%, n=9) said their health stories are run as either a
voice-over (a story approximately 20-30 seconds in length that the anchor
reads on set with video accompanying the copy) or a
voice-over/sound-on-tape (vo-sot) which is also read by the anchor with
video appearing on the screen, but includes a taped interview or soundbite
usually lasting about 15 seconds.
Interestingly, only one-third (34%, n=18) of the health reporters
responding said they concentrate solely on health reporting. The remainder
(66%, n=35) are required to cover other stories in addition to their health
reporting duties. However, more than 80 percent (83%, n=15) of reporters
in small media markets were required to cover other stories in addition to
health, whereas less than half (46%, n=6) of large market reporters had to
cover other stories.
Of those who are required to cover both general news and health news, 12
percent (n=4) said that covering both types of stories helps them when it
comes to covering health news. However, 20 percent said it interfered with
their health reporting, and 68 percent (n=24) said that it had no effect on
their health reporting.
When asked about the support staff available to help with the research,
writing, shooting, editing and/or reporting of health stories, respondents
were given numerous choices and asked to check all that apply. More than
a quarter (27%, n=14) said they received no help with their health
reporting. Of the 53 health reporters who did receive assistance, almost
three-fourths (70%, n=36) said they received help from a photographer on a
regular basis, one-fourth (25%, n=13) received help from an editor, 14
percent (n=7) received help from a producer, six percent (n=3) received
help from an intern, and six percent (n=3) received regular help from
"other" sources, including an anchor at one station and an entire health
reporting staff at another station. It is interesting to note that
none of the health reporters had either a researcher or a writer to help
with health reporting.
RQ #1: What influences a local television news health reporter to cover a
Section II of the survey looked at how a local television news health
reporter is influenced to cover a particular health topic. The respondents
were first asked where they receive the majority of the ideas for their
health stories. They were given a list of eleven items from which to
choose and asked to identify the top three from which they usually receive
their story ideas. Of these choices, just more than half (51%, n=27) of
all respondents said they receive a most of their story ideas from a public
relations spokesperson (for example, a hospital public relations
practitioner or a spokesperson from the American Cancer Society) who
personally contacts them with a story idea. Press releases were the second
most popular manner in which to receive ideas for a health story with
forty-four percent (n=23) of respondents indicating they receive most of
their story ideas from press releases, followed by an e-mail or a phone
call from a viewer (31% of all respondents, n=16). One-fourth (n=13) of
all respondents indicated they receive a majority of their ideas for
stories from newspaper articles or advertisements, another quarter (25%,
n=13) receive the majority from wire services. Twenty-five percent (n=13)
said they receive their ideas from syndicated prepackaged health stories,
and twenty-five percent (n=13) from topics that personally interest or
affect them in some manner. Just more than 20 percent (21%, n=11) of
respondents said they receive a majority of their story ideas from medical
journals. Eight percent (n=4) of all respondents indicated they receive
story ideas from a video news release and eight percent (n=4) from their
Figure 5. Where health reporters receive most of their story ideas
Because having an idea for a health story and actually covering a
particular health topic are two different entities, the health reporters
were given several items in which they were asked to determine how
influential each was on his or her decision to cover a health topic. Each
item was followed by a five-point Likert scale where 1 = no influence and 5
= highly influential.
When asked what influenced them to cover a health topic, more respondents
said the audience was more influential than any other factor. Six of ten
n=34) said the audience and the audience's interest in a health topic was
highly influential and nearly one-third (30%, n=16) indicated it was
influential on their decision-making. Six percent (n=3) said the audience
was sometimes influential, had little influence or had no influence on
their decision to cover a health topic.
The ability to humanize a story also has a tremendous influence on a
reporter's decision to cover a story. Almost two-thirds (62%, n=33) of
respondents said the ability to humanize a story was highly influential on
their decision to cover a health topic, while almost another third (30%,
n=16) of respondents said it was influential. Only four respondents (8%)
said that humanization was sometimes influential, or had little or no
influence on their decision to cover a story.
Available resources (such as time or support staff) are also highly
influential. Half (49%, n=26) of respondents said available resources were
highly influential and one-fourth (26%, n=14) said they were
influential. Seventeen percent (n=9) indicated that available resources
were sometimes influential, and eight percent (n=4) said resources had
little or no effect.
As pertaining to a reporter being able to shoot video on a certain health
topic, just more than 40 percent (41%, n=22) said the ability to shoot
video on a topic was highly influential in their decision to cover a health
topic, 36 percent (n=19) said it was influential and 17 percent said it was
sometimes influential. Six percent (n=3) indicated that ability to shoot
video had little or no influence.
Interestingly, while reporters said the ability to shoot their own video
on a health topic was highly influential, access to a video news release on
a health topic seemed to have very little influence when it came to
deciding whether to cover a health topic. One-third (34%, n=18) of
respondents indicated it had no influence, one-fourth (25%, n=13) said
video news releases had little influence and 30 percent (n=16) said video
news releases sometimes were influential, sometimes not when deciding
whether to cover a topic. Only 11 percent (n=6) of respondents said video
news releases were influential or highly influential in their decision to
cover a topic.
When asked if management was influential in their decision to cover a
particular health topic, one-fourth (24%, n=13) indicated that management
was highly influential, just more than one-fourth (28%, n=15) said
management was influential, and almost one-third (32%, n=17) said
management was sometimes influential, sometimes not. Eight percent (n=4)
said management had little influence and another eight percent (n=4) said
management had no influence on their decision to cover a health topic.
When asked if a health issue that had personally affected the reporter had
influenced his or her decision to cover a health story, one in ten (9%,
n=5) said it was highly influential and nearly one-fourth (23%, n=12) said
personal health issues were influential. More than half (57%, n=30) said
issues affecting them personally were sometimes influential, sometimes
not. Eleven percent (n=6) said personal issues had little or no influence.
Regarding station sponsors and how this sponsorship influences a health
reporter to cover a topic, more than half of respondents (51%, n=27) said
it had no influence, almost one-fourth (23%, n=12) said it had little
influence and 13 percent (n=7) said a station sponsor was sometimes
influential, sometimes not. Another 13 percent (n=7) said a station
sponsor was influential or highly influential on their decision to cover a
When asked how influential a station-sponsored event (such as a blood
drive) is on their decision to cover a health topic, less than ten percent
(9%, n=5) said it was highly influential, whereas 32 percent (n=17) said it
was influential. Just more than one-fourth ( 26%, n=14) of respondents
said a station-sponsored event was sometimes influential, sometimes not,
another 21 percent (n=11) said it had little influence and eleven percent
(n=6) said it had no influence on their decision-making.
In a separate question, respondents were asked how story selection was
most often determined at their station. More than one half of respondents
(59%, n=31) indicated that values and interests of the people in the
community decide story selection and just more than 20 percent (21%, n=11)
said health sources in the community decide story selection. Nine percent
(n=5) said events in the community decide story selection and another nine
percent answered "other."
Only one respondent said that technology of the medium most often decides
story selection at his or her television station. When cross-tabulating
how story selection is determined with market size there was no statistical
significance indicating a relationship between how story selection is
determined and market size (chi square = 10.602, p=.101).
As pertaining to health reports and sponsorship, just more than half (57%,
n=30) said the health reports at their station were sponsored. Forty-three
percent (n=23) did not have sponsored health reporters. When
cross-tabulating this with market size there was no statistical
significance when trying to establish a relationship between market size
and whether or not the health report was sponsored (chi-square = 1.432, p =
Of the respondent's whose health reports are sponsored, several answered an
open-ended question asking how they believe sponsorship affects how they
cover health issues. These answers are as follows:
• Affects it very little to not at all.
• I never think about this.
• Our sponsors are local hospitals. We work with them on a regular basis to
promote new treatments and health care advancements in our stories. They
are also extremely helpful finding experts on certain medical subjects and
patients who have undergone treatments.
• It does not affect coverage at all.
• We have two different franchises that are sponsored by different hospitals.
• We do have a weekly taped interview segment on our 5pm newscast with a
local doctor affiliated with a hospital on various health topics. He is not
promoting going to their facility, but it is sponsored by his hospital group.
• I have several different health segments. One that runs at 5pm, another
on Monday morning, then two on the weekend. Only some are sponsored. It
doesn't affect my coverage at all.
• Some reports are sponsored by a local hospital. They determine what
topics we cover in the sponsored reports and provide resources. They do not
influence other independantly produced pieces, and their sponsorship of one
report does not influence coverage in another report.
• It does not affect coverage at all.
• Must use doctors from a certain medical center for our expert on each topic.
• It does not. I am free to cover any story I like.
• It has no effect.
• I have great resources to use, patients and faces to include in my
stories. But sponsor also has an agenda of issues they want covered.
• They are not all sponsored, and frankly, I don't know who sponsors them,
so it doesn't influence coverage.
• It doesn't. My station is great about not allowing sponsors to interfere
with how we cover a story.
• An area hospital sponsors one health segment. Because of that if I need a
doctor for a soundbite, I feel obligated to check there first.
• It doesn't.
RQ #2: How do sources in the community influence the coverage of health news?
In Section III of the questionnaire, respondents were asked to indicate
whether they agreed with a series of statements dealing with health sources
and the interaction between health reporters and their sources. A
five-point Likert scale was utilized where 1 = strongly disagree and 5 =
More than half of respondents strongly agreed or agreed that health
sources often influenced the health news content making air. Breaking down
these numbers, almost 20 percent (17%, n=9) strongly agreed and more than
40 percent (42%, n=22) somewhat agreed with the statement. Just more than
one-fourth of respondents (26%, n=14) said they neither agreed or
disagreed, four percent (n=2) said they somewhat disagreed and ten percent
(n=5) strongly disagreed.
When cross-tabulating the responses to the statement "health sources often
influence the health news content making air" with a reporter's years of
health reporting experience there was no statistical significance
indicating a relationship (Cramer's V =.158, chi-square = 2.607, p =
.625). However, 69 percent (n=11) of those reporter's with less than three
years of experience and 65 percent of those with three to eight years of
experience indicated that health sources often influenced the content
making air, whereas only forty-four percent (n=7) of health reporters with
more than eight years of experience said that health sources influenced the
health content airing at their station.
Table 7. Crosstabulation – health sources influence content by reporting
(Cramer's V =.158, chi-square = 2.607, p = .625
A similar situation occurred when cross tabulating the responses to the
statement "health sources often influence the health news content making
air" with market size. Though there was no statistical significance
(Cramer's V = .301, chi-square = 9.451, p = .051), only 39% (n=5) of health
reporter's in large market strongly or somewhat agreed with the statement,
whereas 68% of reporters in both medium markets (n=14) and small markets
(n=12) strongly or somewhat agreed with the statement.
Table 9. Crosstabulation – health sources influence content by market size
(Cramer's V = .301, chi-square = 9.451, p = .051),
Next, the reporters were asked if they must frequently find a health expert
to explain information due to the technical nature of health and medical
news. Just more than one-fourth of respondents (27%, n=14) said they
strongly agreed with the statement and 31 percent (n=16) said they
agreed. Almost one-fourth (23%, n=12) neither agreed nor disagreed, 12
percent (n=6) somewhat disagreed and seven percent (n=4) strongly disagreed
when asked if they must frequently find a health expert to explain health
When cross-tabulating whether a reporter must frequently find a health
expert to explain information with market size, there was no statistically
significant relationship (Cramer's V = .235, chi-square = 5.75, p =
.218). However, this cross-tabulation still has an interesting
finding. As shown in the table below, in the large media markets (ADI
1-30) less than half (46%, n=6) of respondents strongly or somewhat agreed
with the statement, but almost 60 percent (n=12) in medium markets (ADI
31-100) and two-thirds (67%, n=12) of those in small markets (ADI 101+)
strongly or somewhat agreed that they needed a health expert to explain
information to them.
Table 11. Crosstabulation – health experts must explain information by
(Cramer's V = .235, chi-square = 5.75, p = .218).
When cross-tabulating whether a reporter must frequently find a health
expert to explain information with a health reporter's experience, again
there was no statistically significant relationship (Cramer's V = .153, p =
.658). This absence of a relationship is quite interesting because more
than 60 percent (63%, n=10) of respondents with less than 3 years of
experience and more than 60 percent (63%, n=10) of respondents with more
than eight years of experience said that they must frequently find an
expert to explain health information. Half (50%, n=10) of those with three
to eight years of experience also strongly or somewhat agreed with the
Table 13. Crosstabulation – health experts must explain information by
RQ #3: According to the health reporter, what strategies or tools does a
source of information
proactively use in order to set the agenda as to what
health stories make air?
When asked if health sources in the community understand what stories are
best for the reporter's needs and the medium of television, 12 percent
(n=6) strongly agreed with the statement and half (50%, n=26) somewhat
agreed. Just less than one-fourth of respondents (23%, n=12) neither
agreed nor disagreed, ten percent (n=5) somewhat disagreed and five percent
(n=3) strongly disagreed.
Next, the respondents were given a list of strategies and/or tools health
sources sometimes use when trying to get a particular story covered by a
television news station. The respondents were asked to mark the three top
methods that these sources successfully use. Nine of every ten reporters
(90%, n=46) indicated that when a health source provides personal examples
for a particular story for the reporter to use, the story idea has a good
chance of making it to air. The next most likely to be used methods were
giving a reporter access to video opportunities (57%, n=29), personally
contacting a health reporter with a story idea (45%, n=23), giving
interesting and concise soundbites (35%, n=18) and explaining technical
information (31%, n=29). Other techniques that health sources use that
seem to be less effective include understanding deadline pressure (22%,
n=11), sending press releases (14%, n=7) and sending video news releases
Figure 6. PR strategies/tools used successfully to facilitate a story
Next, the respondents were asked if they were generally satisfied with what
sources are doing to help them get health stories on the air. More than
eight of ten respondents (85%, n=44) said "yes" they are generally
satisfied. Of the 15 percent (n=8) who were not satisfied with their
health sources, these respondents were asked to explain what they would
like these health sources to do that would help their story make
air. These open-ended responses are as follows:
• Many sources write releases in a very technical, non-visual way that our
viewers can't relate to. Often, they want us to cover a story but will not
let us shoot video! They do not understand that we are a VISUAL medium and
can't tell the story without pictures.
• Don't even pitch a story that doesn't have a person involved. Remember
that deadlines are my business... a phone call returned tomorrow is too
late and I already got what I needed from another source.
• Make more video opportunities available, and make more personal examples
available. I sometimes won't commit to a story until my source can e-mail,
fax, or phone me with relevant studies or literature on the subject. Also,
docs too often don't understand that we need the interview today...
tomorrow, it won't be news.
• I am, however, very wary of p.r. people who try to push products/new
surgical techniques, etc on behalf of their client...in order just to
increase business for a particular drug company or foot traffic into a
doctor's office. My concern is getting objective, accurate information to
the viewer without hidden agendas attached to the story.
• I'd like them to find patients so our viewers can relate.
To find out about the latest health scare or medical miracle, most
Americans simply flip on the television. But as more and more viewers use
the medium of television as their primary means of learning about health
and medical issues, it becomes increasingly important to understand why
these health issues are being publicized in the media and what entities are
building the public's health agenda.
This study, the first nationwide quantitative examination of local
television news health reporters, was designed to explore the health
reporting practices of these reporters from their own perspective. Data
from this study revealed significant insight into how these health
reporters receive ideas for their health stories and what influences a
health reporter to cover a particular topic.
Theoretically, the data from this study support the agenda-building
process. The results of the data suggest a reciprocal effect among the
viewing audience, the media and media sources as related to the media's
health agenda. Whereas agenda-setting assumes the media alone sets the
public's agenda, agenda-building, in effect, takes the process a step
further by suggesting many different entities influence and build the
agenda the media presents to the viewing audience.
Overall, this study revealed that the health reporters responding to the
questionnaire were uneducated in the health and medical field, meaning very
few had received a college degree in a health or science related field or
taken college courses or seminars on the topic of health. This lack of
formal training in health and/or medicine, coupled with the large amount of
airtime these reporters must fill with health-related information on a
daily basis, seemed to contribute to an extreme reliance on health sources
in the community.
For example, more than half of respondents receive ideas for their health
reports directly from a public relations spokesperson who personally
contacts them. Other popular manners in which the health reporters said
they receive story ideas included a phone call or e-mail from a viewer or
information from other media outlets, such as the newspaper or wire
services. This suggests the reporters are learning of story ideas through
a "passive news discovery process" in which reporters find story ideas
without ever leaving the newsroom.
Though the literature revealed that passive news discovery may take place
in all facets of television news reporting, the findings of this study
perhaps suggest it may be more prevalent in television health reporting
because of the lack of training in the field of health, lack of resources
to cover stories and the large amounts of airtime these reporters are
expected to fill with health information on a daily basis.
Data from this study not only revealed where the respondents were receiving
their story ideas, but also examined the factors influencing a health
reporter to actually cover the story after receiving the
idea. Interestingly, the findings revealed several factors that were most
influential, but the data also suggested that numerous factors work
together to influence a health reporter to cover a particular story.
The health reporters in this study said the audience's interest in a topic
and a reporter's ability to humanize the topic by using personal examples
in the story were the most influential factors when deciding whether to
cover a story. Other highly influential factors included having available
resources to cover the story and being able to shoot video on a certain
topic. These findings are alarming in that they suggest a reporter may
decide not to cover a newsworthy story due to lack of video or humanization
Other data also suggest, in some instances, a bias in health news coverage
in reports that are sponsored. While only 13 percent of respondents said
their health sponsor influences their decision to cover a story,
qualitative research from this study suggests some health reporters feel
obligated to use story ideas pitched by their sponsor or use sources only
from the sponsor. Though it is important to note that this is not an
objective description of the majority of health reports at television
stations across the country, it does send up a red flag, suggesting that
some of these sponsors are using their influence to promote stories they
When asked about overall story selection, the respondents indicated that
values and interest of the people in the community and health sources most
often determine story selection. Theoretically, this data suggests
agenda-building is occurring when pertaining to health reporting because it
appears the media are not setting the public agenda, but instead the public
itself, along with health sources in the community, are determining what
stories make air.
In addition, 60 percent of respondents said they must frequently find a
health expert to explain technical information and 60 percent also agreed
that health sources often influence the health content making air. Again,
this suggests a theoretical link between agenda-building and health
reporting in that it is not solely the reporter who determines what story
is broadcast to the public. The data suggests a health reporter's reliance
on sources is exacerbated by the technical nature of health and medical
news and a health reporter's lack of training.
Public relations practitioners trying to find the best manner in which to
pitch a story idea can gain great insight from this study. Time and again,
the reporters responding to this questionnaire stressed the importance of
personal contact. Not only did these reporters receive many of their ideas
from public relations practitioners who personally contacted them, but the
data revealed that this personal contact was the number one tactic public
relations practitioners can use to facilitate their story making air. In
an increasingly technological era, it was interesting to find that this
personal touch still has a significant impact.
A majority of respondents said they were generally satisfied with what
their sources were doing to help them get stories on the air. However,
this satisfaction could be attributed to the special journalist/source
relationship that is many times evident when a reporter is assigned to
cover a "beat" such as health. The literature revealed that a beat
reporter may return to the same source again and again simply because the
source has been reliable in the past.
This relationship between the health reporter and her sources suggests the
source should work to develop his or her relationship with the
reporter. As the literature and the current study revealed, once this
relationship is established, it more than likely will continue. This
suggests that once the source has "proven himself," the reporter will
continue to cover the source's story ideas because the source and the
reporter have had a successful working relationship in the past.
But personal contact alone does not necessarily guarantee a particular
health story will make air. In order to have a good source/journalist
relationship, the source must know the intricacies of the medium of
television. The findings of this study revealed that a health reporter is
less likely to pursue a story with little humanization or video
potential. Despite the newsworthiness of the story, if a health issue can
not be presented in a visual manner that viewers can relate to through
humanization of topic, a reporter may decide not to cover the story.
This study has laid the groundwork for a number of future research
possibilities. This study collected data from health reporters, thus the
information gathered was entirely from the reporter's perspective. The
next phase of research should consist of an examination of the health
sources. Because there are so many health sources contributing to a
television reporter's health agenda, it would not be feasible to conduct an
empirical content analysis of the information these sources are releasing
to the health reporter. However, a qualitative study, consisting of
one-on-one interviews with several prominent health sources would be
applicable and would allow the researcher to determine how and why these
sources release certain health information to reporters of all media outlets.
An ethnographic study of several different news organizations and the
organization's health reporter would also be beneficial. Not only would
this type of study allow for richer data to be collected as to the
different factors influencing a reporter to cover a particular health
topic, it would also eliminate the need for the self-reporting of an
individual's practices and behaviors. Self-reporting can sometimes be
problematic because respondents may answer how they think they should
answer instead of how they truly behave. An ethnographic study would allow
the researcher to examine an reporter's actual newsgathering practices,
learn more about the behaviors of the health reporters and explore the
environment in which the reporter works on a day-to-day basis.
Finally, the respondents for this study were obtained by randomly
selecting a sample of local television stations, then contacting the health
reporters at these stations. However, many of these stations did not employ
a health reporter, therefore the number of cases for analysis was
small. In future examinations of local television health reporters, a
census of the population should be obtained in an effort to increase the
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 The on-line version of the questionnaire was designed by Patty
Kornegay at the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the
University of XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX.
 It is important to realize that these percents do not add up to 100
percent because each respondent disclosed all of the help they received,
with some respondents receiving help from more than one person. For
example, some health reporters worked with a photographer and a producer on
a regular basis. In order to calculate this, frequency and percents were
calculated separately for each job description.
 These percents do not add up to 100 percent because each respondent
was asked to disclose the top three ways they receive ideas for health
stories. The frequencies and percents for each item were tabulated