14.5 News media coverage

Contributor: Trish Cotter, September 2011

The news media can provide unparalleled mass reach, allowing information about health issues to be received by a very large proportion of the population.1,2 Early research linked decreases in tobacco consumption and smoking prevalence to news and publicity surrounding some of the first widely publicised reports on smoking and health.3 Notably, unpaid publicity has been credited as the main factor contributing to the 30% decline in smoking prevalence among British males between 1960 and 1980—substantial falls followed the publication of the 1962 and 1971 Royal College of Physicians' reports. Declines in the prevalence of smoking among US males have been attributed chiefly to the influence of the mass media and especially the publicity given to the early US Surgeon General's reports.4

Tobacco-control efforts often attract significant news media attention58 and aggregated news coverage sometimes outweighs even the most intensive exposure gained through paid anti-smoking campaigns.9 Quit Victoria has estimated, for instance, that its 40 media mentions on average per week between January 2007 and December 2010 resulted in an additional 9000 stories in Australian media over the same period that mentioned smoking or tobacco control.10

By influencing public perceptions about the importance of issues, news media can influence public health behaviour directly and indirectly.11 Indirectly, news coverage can influence attitudes and behaviours by attracting institutional attention and prompting related environmental or policy changes.12 This strategic use of news coverage to influence public policy (media advocacy) seeks to develop and shape news stories to build public support for public policies and ultimately influence those who have the power to change or preserve laws, enact polices and fund interventions that can influence whole populations.13,14 This requires active engagement in the process and a good understanding of how the media works. A study by Wakefield and colleagues quantified the recognition of Australian tobacco control advocacy groups by the news media. They found advocacy groups were explicitly mentioned in about one in five newspaper articles on tobacco use, were increasingly likely to be mentioned as the prominence of the article increased and were sought out by journalists for comment on issues.15 News coverage can also directly influence public health behaviours by providing information that changes knowledge, attitudes or intentions,16 or by increasing the perceived importance of a health issue17 such that priming effects occur.18

The volume of news coverage is also a significant factor in shaping opinions. Australian adults are potentially exposed to a significant amount of tobacco-related news coverage and smoking is a leading health news focus in Australia.19 While the amount of coverage may vary considerably across states/territories and across a given year19 one estimate puts this exposure at one tobacco-related news article every week from 2001 to 2006—comparable with or higher than the level of paid advertising.20 Despite this high level of exposure and research exploring the ways in which mass media can influence smokers by paid anti-smoking advertising,2124 research on the role of the news media in directly shaping individual-level smoking outcomes has been limited. Studies have shown correspondence between patterns of news media coverage of tobacco to cigarette purchasing patterns25 and annual rates of cessation.26 Emerging evidence suggests that the volume of newspaper coverage about tobacco-control efforts is important for getting and keeping tobacco control on the agenda8, and is also related to youth smoking-related cognitions27 and behaviours.27,28 To date, only one study has linked adults' self-reported exposure to tobacco news content with any smoking-related beliefs, in this case, support for policies to limit smoking in movies.29 Only a small number of studies have examined smokers' recall of tobacco-related news.18,29,30

In an Australian study, Dunlop and colleagues explored smokers' and recent quitters' recall of tobacco news, and associations between tobacco news recall and smoking-related cognitive and behavioural outcomes. High levels of self-reported exposure to tobacco news were associated with important smoking-related cognitions, including beliefs about harm from smoking and frequent thoughts about quitting. The relationship between news recall and these outcomes was maintained when controlling for known predictors of news exposure such as education. News recall was not, however, related to an increased probability of having made a recent quit attempt.31

New developments in scientific knowledge, public policy initiatives and debates are particularly likely to attract major news coverage.26,20 Given that one of the goals of media advocacy is to raise awareness of health issues by generating news coverage (which can in turn lead to support for and actual policy changes),32 it is imperative to understand how the news media works,8,32 as well as how smokers receive, hear and see tobacco news, in order to make the most of their everyday media habits.

With the exception of MacKenzie's analysis of news portrayals of lung cancer in Australian television news,33 most research examining news coverage of tobacco control has focused on print media.5,27,20 However, the ways in which news is disseminated has changed dramatically. While Australians continue to rate television as the most important source of news information for a range of topics, usage of online news sites is growing.34 By one estimate, in 2005 between 30% and 37% of the Australian population was already using the Internet for news.35

It is important to understand which tobacco issues are most likely to be covered, the nature of the coverage19 and the role the information disseminated by the news media has in shaping smokers' beliefs, intentions and behaviours,33,36 because news can be an accessible and low-cost intervention8 as well as a useful adjunct to a paid media strategy.

Relevant news and research

For recent news items and research on this topic, click here (Last updated January 2019)   



Thank you to Dr Sally Dunlop and Professor Melanie Wakefield for advice and assistance.


1. Benelli E. The role of the media in steering public opinion on healthcare issues. Health Policy 2003;63(2):179–86. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12543530

2. Brodie M, Hamel E, Altman D, Blendon R and Benson J. Health news and the American public, 1996–2002. Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law 2003;28(5):927–50. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14604217

3. Warner KE. The effects of the anti-smoking campaign on cigarette consumption. American Journal of Public Health 1977;76(7):645–50. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1653696/

4. Reid D, Killoran A, McNeill A and Chambers J. Choosing the most effective health promotion options for reducing a nation's smoking prevalence. Tobacco Control 1992;1(3):185–97. Available from: http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/cgi/content/citation/1/3/185

5. Clegg Smith K, Wakefield M and Edsall E. The good news about smoking: how do US newspapers cover tobacco issues? Journal of Public Health Policy 2006;27(2):166–81. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16961195

6. Long M, Slater MD and Lysengen L. US news media coverage of tobacco control issues. Tobacco Control 2006;15(5):367–72. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16998170

7. Chapman S. The news on tobacco control: time to bring the background into the foreground. Tobacco Control 1999;8(3):237–9. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10599562

8. Chapman S and Dominello A. A strategy for increasing news media coverage of tobacco and health in Australia. Health Promotion International 2001;16(2):137–43. Available from: http://heapro.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/full/16/2/137

9. Stevens C. Designing an effective counteradvertising campaign – California. Cancer 1998;83(12 suppl Robert):S2736–41. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9874388

10. Pearce E, Melbourne, Australia: Quit Victoria. Estimated number of media stories (personal communication). Scollo, M, 2011.

11. McCombs M. A look at agenda-setting: past, present and future. Journalism Studies 2005;6(4):543–7. Available from: http://www.mendeley.com/research/a-look-at-agendasetting-past-present-and-future/

12. Yanovitzky I. Effect of news coverage on the prevalence of drunk-driving behavior: evidence from a longitudinal study. Journal of Studies on Alcohol 2002;63(3):342–51. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12086135

13. Chapman S. Public health advocacy and tobacco control: making smoking history. Queensland, Australia: Wiley-Blackwell, 2007. Available from: http://www.blackwellpublishing.com/contents.asp?ref=9781405161633&site=1

14. Chapman S. Advocacy for public health: a primer. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 2004;58(5):361–5. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15082730

15. Wakefield M, Brennan E, Durkin SJ, McLeod K and Smith KC. Making news: the appearance of tobacco control organisations in newspaper coverage of tobacco control issues. American Journal of Health Promotion 2011;In press

16. Shim M, Kelly B and Hornik R. Cancer information scanning and seeking behavior is associated with knowledge, lifestyle choices, and screening. Journal of Health Communication 2006;11(suppl. 1):i157–72. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16641081

17. Ogata Jones K, Denham BE and Springston JK. Effects of mass media and interpersonal communication on breast cancer screening: advancing agenda-setting theory in health contexts. Journal of Applied Communication Research 2006;34(1):94–113. Available from: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00909880500420242

18. Stryker JE, Moriarty CM and Jensen JD. Effects of newspaper coverage on public knowledge about modifiable cancer risks. Health Communication 2008;23(4):380–90. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18702002

19. Durrant R, Wakefield M, McLeod K, Clegg-Smith K and Chapman S. Tobacco in the news: an analysis of newspaper coverage of tobacco issues in Australia, 2001. Tobacco Control 2003;12(suppl. 2):ii75–81. Available from: http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/12/suppl_2/ii75

20. Wakefield M, Brennan E, Durkin S, McLeod K and Smith K. Still a burning issue: trends in the volume, content and population reach of newspaper coverage about tobacco issues. Critical Public Health 2011;21(3):313–25. Available from: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09581596.2010.502930#preview

21. Durkin S, Biener L and Wakefield M. Effects of different types of antismoking ads on reducing disparities in smoking cessation among socioeconomic subgroups. American Journal of Public Health 2009;99(12):2217–23. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2775761/

22. Biener L. Adult and youth response to the Massachusetts anti-tobacco television campaign. Journal of Public Health Management and Practice 2000;6(3):40–4. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10848481

23. Biener L, Reimer R, Wakefield M, Szczypka G, Rigotti N and Connolly G. Impact of smoking cessation aids and mass media among recent quitters. American Journal of Preventive Medicine 2006;30(3):217–24. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16476637

24. Farrelly MC, Davis KC, Haviland ML, Messeri P and Healton CG. Evidence of a dose-response relationship between 'truth' antismoking ads and youth smoking prevalence. American Journal of Public Health 2005;95(3):425–31. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15727971

25. Laugesen M and Meads C. Advertising, price, income and publicity effects on weekly cigarette sales in New Zealand supermarkets. British Journal of Addiction 1991;86(1):83–9. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2009401

26. Pierce JP and Gilpin EA. News media coverage of smoking and health is associated with changes in population rates of smoking cessation but not initiation. Tobacco Control 2001;10(2):145–53. Available from: http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/cgi/content/abstract/10/2/145

27. Smith KC, Wakefield MA, Terry-McElrath Y, Chaloupka FJ, Flay B, Johnston L, et al. Relation between newspaper coverage of tobacco issues and smoking attitudes and behaviour among American teens. Tobacco Control 2008;17(1):17–24. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18218802

28. Niederdeppe J, Farrelly MC, Thomas KY, Wenter D and Weitzenkamp D. Newspaper coverage as indirect effects of a health communication intervention: the Florida tobacco control program and youth smoking. Communication Research 2007;34(4):382–406. Available from: http://crx.sagepub.com/content/34/4/382

29. Blake KD, Viswanath K, Blendon RJ and Vallone D. The role of reported tobacco-specific media exposure on adult attitudes towards proposed policies to limit the portrayal of smoking in movies. Tobacco Control 2010;19(3):191–6. Available from: http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/content/19/3/191.long

30. Blake K, Viswanath K, Blendon R and Vallone D. The role of tobacco-specific media exposure, knowledge, and smoking status on selected attitudes toward tobacco control. Nicotine & Tobacco Research 2010;12(2):117–26. Available from: http://ntr.oxfordjournals.org/content/12/2/117.long

31. Dunlop S, Cotter T, Perez D and Chapman S. Tobacco in the news: associations between news coverage, news recall and smoking related outcomes in a sample of Australian smokers and recent quitters. Health Education Research 2012;in press Available from: http://her.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2011/12/08/her.cyr105.short?rss=1

32. Chapman S, Holding SJ, Ellerm J, Heenan RC, Fogarty AS, Imison M, et al. The content and structure of Australian television reportage on health and medicine, 2005–2009: parameters to guide health workers. Medical Journal of Australia 2009;191(11–12):620–4. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20028286

33. MacKenzie R, Chapman S and Holding S. Framing responsibility: coverage of lung cancer among smokers and non-smokers in Australian television news Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health 2011;35(1):66–70. Available from: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1753-6405.2010.00614.x/pdf

34. Roy Morgan International. Australian media viewed with scepticism – TV remains first stop when chasing the news. Finding no. 4117. Melbourne, Australia: RMI, 2006 [viewed 23 Aug 2011] . Available from: http://www.roymorgan.com/news/polls/2006/4117/.

35. Nguyen A, Ferrier E, Western M and McKay S. Online news in Australia: patterns of use and gratification. Australian Studies in Journalism 2005;15:5–34. Available from: http://espace.library.uq.edu.au/view/UQ:8065

36. McLeod K, Wakefield M, Chapman S, Clegg Smith K and Durkin S. Changes in the news representation of smokers and tobacco-related media advocacy from 1995 to 2005 in Australia. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 2009;63:215–20. Available from: http://jech.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/63/3/215

      Previous Chapter