Re:Measuring mass media coverage of tobacco: prominence over quantity

David E. Nelson, Director, Cancer Prevention Fellowship Program,

Other Contributors:

August 20, 2013

We appreciate Dr. Blum's interest in our study and his comments. Data used for our study were collected and coded based on the public health surveillance model, which is more fully described elsewhere (1). Only a carefully selected set of items from tobacco news stories were coded over an extended period of time, with editorial cartoons and letters to the editor not included in the system. The newspapers were specifically chosen based on their larger circulation numbers and geographic representation. As often occurs with surveillance system data, they can be more useful for generating than testing specific research hypotheses (2).

We agree it would be valuable to assess the level of news coverage for tobacco issues in the broader context of media coverage for other topics; unfortunately, doing so was far beyond the scope this project.

There were, of course, many more tobacco activities or events over the 7-year period contributing to higher levels of news coverage than we could possibly highlight in the figures. We agree that prominence accorded to tobacco news stories by news media gatekeepers, as assessed by whether they appear on the front page of a newspaper or are mentioned early in television broadcasts, or if they appear in elite media outlets such as the New York Times, is important (3).

Additional items were added to the system beginning in 2007 that allowed for some analyses of prominence from 2007-2010, and these findings were mentioned in our paper. More research about prominence along the lines suggested by Dr. Blum is warranted, and such research would, ideally, confirm or deny his impression that there were only been a handful of significant tobacco stories in recent years.

We believe the prominence versus quantity argument as it pertains to news media coverage of tobacco represents a false choice: both are important and they are interrelated. Tobacco control and prevention activities or events that result in news stories in elite media are likely to generate a large quantity of news coverage over time in other media outlets. Conversely, if a large number of news stories about a specific tobacco-related topic appear in other media outlets, they will likely gain the attention of elite media gatekeepers and result in increased coverage in their news venues.

1. Nelson DE, Evans WD, Pederson LL, et al. A national surveillance system for tracking tobacco news stories. Am J Prev Med. 2007;32:79-85.

2. Lee LM, Teutsch SM, Thacker SB, St. Louis, ME (eds). Principles & Practice of Public Health Surveillance (3rd ed). New York: Oxford University Press; 2010.

3. Gorman L, McLean D. Media and Society into the 21st Century: A Historical Introduction (2nd ed). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell; 2009.

Conflict of Interest:

None declared

Conflict of Interest

None declared