Measuring mass media coverage of tobacco: prominence over quantity
NOT PEER REVIEWED Because the authors cite just seven major tobacco-related news events in the seven year period they reviewed (Figure 2), I question whether their tabulation of the "volume of news media stories on tobacco" (page 6) provides a meaningful representation of the coverage of tobacco-related issues in the mass media. Is not a front-page article on a tobacco- related subject in The New York Times or The Washington Post--or a lead story on NBC NIghtly News or The Today Show--of far greater importance, in terms of both content and readership, than the publication of any number of brief items? In other words, missing from this analysis is a year-by- year list of nationally significant news stories on tobacco.
One measure that could be used to quantify the relative importance of tobacco stories in a given year is the daily Index to Businesses in The Wall Street Journal (WSJ). By this indicator (and by my daily reading of the print editions of the WSJ, The New York Times, The Financial Times, USA Today, and two local US dailies), my impression is that in recent years there has been a relative handful of significant tobacco news stories. This is at odds with the authors' finding of an average of 3 tobacco-related newspaper stories, 4 newswire stories, and 1 television news story each day for seven years. Although the authors attempted to correct for duplication, I suspect a large percentage of these stories were variations on a theme or the same news thread.
Another measure is newspaper editorial cartoons. Even taking into consideration the decimation in the ranks of political cartoonists at US dailies due to the steep decline in newspaper readership, editorial cartoons on tobacco issues are now rare. In the heady days of anti- tobacco activism in the US in the 1980s and 1990s, I catalogued more than 700 editorial cartoons on tobacco.
I wonder if the best way to gauge the weight given to the coverage of tobacco-related issues in a given year would be to compare it to the attention given to other issues, both health-related (eg, AIDS, obesity, gun control, alcohol problems) and less directly health-related (eg, the economy, unemployment, terrorism).
Ultimately, I am unconvinced that quantity beats quality when it comes to reports on tobacco in the mass media. What matters is the prominence of news coverage of significant issues, not the number of articles all counted as equal.
Conflict of Interest: