14.6 News media coverage

Last updated: November 2019

Suggested citation: Cotter, T, Bayly, M. 14.6 News media coverage. In Scollo, MM and Winstanley, MH [editors]. Tobacco in Australia: Facts and issues. Melbourne: Cancer Council Victoria; 2019. Available from: https://www.tobaccoinaustralia.org.au/chapter-14-social-marketing/14-6-news-media-coverage

The news media can provide information about health issues to 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

Journalists and media outlets are particularly likely to report on new developments in scientific knowledge, public policy initiatives and policy debates with strong proponents and opponents. 5-7 News stories can therefore be an accessible and low-cost public education intervention 8 as well as a useful adjunct to a paid media strategy. Health advocates aiming to raise awareness of health issues by generating news coverage (which can in turn lead to support for and actual policy changes), 9 need a good understanding of how smokers receive, hear and see tobacco news, how the news media works, 8, 9 and how to attract media attention. Opportunities for coverage of newly published research are limited when other tobacco control issues are ‘live’ and already gathering media attention. 10 Online news in particular is a wide-reaching, very low-cost avenue for disseminating news stories that have a high level of public interest. 7 It is important to understand which tobacco issues are most likely to be covered across each of the different news media  channels, 10, 11 the nature of the coverage 12, 13 and the role the information disseminated by the news media has in shaping smokers’ beliefs, intentions and behaviours. 14, 15 

14.6.1 Volume of news coverage

Tobacco control efforts often attract significant news media attention 8, 16-18 and aggregated news coverage sometimes outweighs even the most intensive exposure gained through paid anti-smoking campaigns. 19 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 9,000 stories in the Australian media that mentioned smoking or tobacco control. 20  

Studies of news coverage of tobacco control issues often examine the tone of the story. The studies typically note a predominantly positive or neutral tone (in favour of tobacco control), and that stories that feature more pro-tobacco control sources tend to be more positive, and vice versa. 13, 21-23 The volume of news coverage is also a significant factor in shaping opinions. 8 Australian adults are potentially exposed to a significant amount of tobacco-related news coverage and smoking has long been a leading health news focus in Australia. 12 While the amount of coverage may vary considerably across states/territories and across a given year, 12 one estimate put this exposure at one tobacco-related news article every week from 2001 to 2006—comparable with or higher than the level of paid advertising. 6 Particular policy issues, such as plain packaging, may generate an especially high volume of news content. 23 Despite vocal opposition to plain packaging that was frequently covered in the media, news articles from Australian outlets from the time of policy announcement to post-implementation of plain packaging were overwhelmingly neutral in tone (96%), and 55% of editorials were positive. An analysis of this news coverage attributed this predominately neutral coverage to robust efforts by public health advocates to counter tobacco industry misinformation. 23

14.6.2 Advocacy in the news

By influencing public perceptions about the importance of issues, news media can influence public health behaviour directly and indirectly. 24 Indirectly, news coverage can influence attitudes and behaviours by attracting institutional attention and prompting related environmental or policy changes. 25 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. 26, 27 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 around 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. 28 News coverage can also directly influence public health behaviours by providing information that changes knowledge, attitudes or intentions, 29 or by increasing the perceived importance of a health issue 30 such that priming effects occur. 31

Efforts of the tobacco industry and the local tobacco control context can also influence the news media. Studies from the US of the content and tone of local tobacco-related newspaper coverage have shown that towns and jurisdictions that have fewer smokefree policies 32, 33 or are closer to tobacco company headquarters 34 tend to have fewer stories about tobacco control issues and more negatively toned editorials. In one of these studies, the authors noted that areas without smokefree policies also tended to have more stories related to issues such as youth smoking rates, rather than coverage of proposed policy or other tobacco control issues. The authors suggested that this may be the result of tobacco industry efforts to divert attention away from tobacco control efforts in jurisdictions yet to pass smokefree policies. 32 An analysis of news coverage of the announcement of the Philip Morris-funded Foundation for a Smokefree World found that while more than half of the print and web-based news stories examined presented an opposing argument against the Foundation, almost 30% were neutral, and 20% were positive. Around 40% of articles were critical of the credibility of the Foundation or presented the Foundation as a tactic to undermine tobacco control efforts. 13

14.6.3 Influence of news coverage on smoking behaviour

Despite the high level of exposure of news coverage, and  research exploring the ways in which mass media can influence smokers by paid anti-smoking advertising, 35, 36 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 patterns 37 and annual rates of cessation. 5 Some evidence suggests that the volume of newspaper coverage can be related to youth smoking-related cognitions 38, 39 and behaviours. 38, 40 Very little research has linked adults’ self-reported exposure to tobacco news content with any smoking-related beliefs. The first study to do so examined support for policies to limit smoking in movies. 41 Only a small number of studies have examined smokers’ recall of tobacco-related news. 31, 41, 42

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. 43 Among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander smokers, self-reported noticing of anti-tobacco news stories in the past six months was associated with significantly higher levels of worry about the dangers of smoking to individual health and desire to quit smoking. 44 A US study of coverage of the lung cancer deaths of high-profile individuals found that, following coverage of these deaths, attitudes toward lung cancer changed and a sustained increase in quitline calls was observed. 45  

14.6.4 News media channels

With the exception of MacKenzie and colleagues’ analysis of television news portrayals of lung cancer, 14 most Australian research examining news coverage of tobacco control has focused on print media. 6, 12, 15, 16, 23, 38, 43 US research suggests that television news coverage may be more neutral and less likely to feature public health advocates than newspaper content. This content analysis of television news stories of tobacco issues from 2008-2009 found the majority of stories had a balanced tone (68%) and most others were supportive of tobacco control. 46 Approximately half of the stories examined did not quote any sources, and of those that did, government officials were most often featured. Smoking bans and stories about cessation were the most frequently covered topics. Another US study observed differences in the themes featured in news stories in newspapers compared with on television, and much more variability between individual newspapers and newswires compared to across television networks. 47

The ways in which news is disseminated has changed dramatically. In 2018, use of online news—including news websites, social media, and blogs—among Australians surpassed traditional (offline) news sources, with 82% accessing online news and 79% accessing offline news. 48 Television remained the most popular news source (66%), followed by online news websites and apps (64%), and social media (54%). Use of social media as the main source of news was 17% in 2018, second only to television (26%), but much higher among those aged 18–24 years (36%). 48

Social media provides further avenues for news stories to reach audiences through ‘earned media’ via blog posts, reader engagement (e.g. Facebook ‘likes’ and comments on articles) and sharing of content by users. 49, 50 Researchers have also begun analysing the content and tone of public comments on news sites to understand the impact and public perceptions of coverage of public health issues and public education campaigns. 49

*Acknowledgement: Thank you to Dr Sally Dunlop and Professor Melanie Wakefield for advice and assistance on a previous version of this section.


Relevant news and research

For recent news items and research on this topic, click here ( Last updated April 2022)    



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 EC, Altman DE, Blendon RJ, and Benson JM. Health news and the American public, 1996-2002. J Health Polit Policy Law, 2003; 28(5):927-50. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14604217

3.         Warner KE. The effects of 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 DJ, Killoran AJ, McNeill AD, and Chambers JS. Choosing the most effective health promotion options for reducing a nation's smoking prevalence. 1992; 1(3):185. Available from: https://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/content/tobaccocontrol/1/3/185.full.pdf

5.         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. Tob Control, 2001; 10(2):145-53. Available from: http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/cgi/content/abstract/10/2/145

6.         Wakefield MA, Brennan E, Durkin SJ, McLeod K, and Smith KC. Still a burning issue: trends in the volume, content and population reach of newspaper coverage about tobacco issues. Critical Public Health, 2011; 21(3):313-325. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1080/09581596.2010.502930

7.         MacKenzie R and Chapman S. Pig's blood in cigarette filters: how a single news release highlighted tobacco industry concealment of cigarette ingredients. Tob Control, 2011; 20(2):169-172. Available from: http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/content/20/2/169.abstract

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):137-143. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1093/heapro/16.2.137

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

10.       MacKenzie R and Chapman S. Generating news media interest in tobacco control; challenges in an advanced policy environment. Health Promotion Journal of Australia, 2012; 23(2):92-96. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23088484

11.       Pederson LL, Nelson DE, Babb S, London J, Promoff G, et al. News media outreach and newspaper coverage of tobacco control. Health Promotion Practice, 2012; 13(5):642-647. Available from: http://hpp.sagepub.com/content/13/5/642.abstract

12.       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. 2003; 12(suppl 2):ii75-ii81. Available from: https://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/content/tobaccocontrol/12/suppl_2/ii75.full.pdf

13.       Watts C and Freeman B. "Where There's Smoke, There's Fire": A Content Analysis of Print and Web-Based News Media Reporting of the Philip Morris-Funded Foundation for a Smoke-Free World. JMIR Public Health Surveill, 2019; 5(2):e14067.

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

15.       McLeod K, Wakefield M, Chapman S, Smith KC, and Durkin S. Changes in the news representation of smokers and tobacco-related media advocacy from 1995 to 2005 in Australia. 2009; 63(3):215-220. Available from: https://jech.bmj.com/content/jech/63/3/215.full.pdf

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

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

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

19.       Stevens C. Designing an effective counteradvertising campaign--California. Cancer, 1998; 83(12 Suppl Robert):2736-41. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9874388

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

21.       Thrasher JF, Kim SH, Rose I, and Craft MK. Media coverage of smoke-free policies after their innovation. J Health Commun, 2015; 20(3):297-305.

22.       Myers AE, Southwell BG, Ribisl KM, Moreland-Russell S, and Lytle LA. Setting the agenda for a healthy retail environment: content analysis of US newspaper coverage of tobacco control policies affecting the point of sale, 2007-2014. Tob Control, 2017; 26(4):406-414.

23.       Miller CL, Brownbill AL, Dono J, and Ettridge K. Presenting a strong and united front to tobacco industry interference: a content analysis of Australian newspaper coverage of tobacco plain packaging 2008–2014. BMJ Open, 2018; 8(9). Available from: https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/bmjopen/8/9/e023485.full.pdf

24.       McCombs M. A Look at Agenda-setting: past, present and future. Journalism Studies, 2005; 6(4):543-557. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1080/14616700500250438

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

26.       Chapman S, Public health advocacy and tobacco control: making smoking history. Queensland, Australia: Wiley-Blackwell; 2007. Available from: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/book/10.1002/9780470692479.

27.       Chapman S. Advocacy for public health: a primer. J Epidemiol Community Health, 2004; 58(5):361-5.

28.       Wakefield MA, Brennan E, Durkin SJ, McLeod K, and Smith KC. Making news: the appearance of tobacco control organizations in newspaper coverage of tobacco control issues. Am J Health Promot, 2012; 26(3):166-71. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22208414

29.       Shim M, Kelly B, and Hornik R. Cancer information scanning and seeking behavior is associated with knowledge, lifestyle choices, and screening. J Health Commun, 2006; 11 Suppl 1:157-72. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16641081

30.       Ogata Jones K, Denham BE, and Springston JK. Effects of Mass 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: https://doi.org/10.1080/00909880500420242

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

32.       Eckler P, Rodgers S, and Everett K. Characteristics of Community Newspaper Coverage of Tobacco Control and Its Relationship to the Passage of Tobacco Ordinances. J Community Health, 2016. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27000041

33.       Stanfield K and Rodgers S. A multi-year study of tobacco control in newspaper editorials using community characteristic data and content analysis findings. Health Communication, 2017. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28467107

34.       McDaniel PA, Lown EA, and Malone RE. US media coverage of tobacco industry Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives. Journal of Community Health, 2017. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10900-017-0394-8

35.       US Department of Health and Human Services. Preventing tobacco use among youth and young adults: a report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta, Georgia: US Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health, 2012. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK99237/pdf/Bookshelf_NBK99237.pdf.

36.       National Cancer Institute, The Role of the Media. Smoking and Tobacco Control Monograph no. 19 Bethesda, MD: US Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute; 2008. Available from: http://cancercontrol.cancer.gov/tcrb/monographs/19/index.html

37.       Laugesen M and Meads C. Advertising, price, income and publicity effects on weekly cigarette sales in New Zealand supermarkets. Br J Addict, 1991; 86(1):83-9. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2009401

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

39.       Dunlop S and Romer D. Relation between newspaper coverage of 'light' cigarette litigation and beliefs about 'lights' among American adolescents and young adults: the impact on risk perceptions and quitting intentions. Tob Control, 2010; 19:267–73. Available from: http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/content/19/4/267.full

40.       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):382-405. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1177/0093650207302784

41.       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. 2010; 19(3):191-196. Available from: https://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/content/tobaccocontrol/19/3/191.full.pdf

42.       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

43.       Dunlop SM, 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, 2011; 27(1):160-171. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1093/her/cyr105

44.       Nicholson AK, Borland R, Sarin J, Wallace S, der Sterren AE, et al. Recall of anti-tobacco advertising and information, warning labels and news stories in a national sample of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander smokers. Medical Journal of Australia, 2015; 202(10):S67-S72. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26017261

45.       Portnoy DB, Leach CR, Kaufman AR, Moser RP, and Alfano CM. Reduced fatalism and increased prevention behavior after two high-profile lung cancer events. J Health Commun, 2014; 19(5):577-592. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24274730

46.       Blake KD, Kaufman AR, Lorenzo J, and Augustson EM. A Descriptive Study of Television News Coverage of Tobacco in the United States: Frequency of Topics, Frames, Exemplars, and Efficacy. J Health Commun, 2015:1-7. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26176379

47.       Nelson DE, Pederson LL, Mowery P, Bailey S, Sevilimedu V, et al. Trends in US newspaper and television coverage of tobacco. Tob Control, 2015; 24(1):94-9.

48.       Australian Communications and Media Authority. Australian Communications and Media Authority Communications report 2017–18. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia, 2019. Available from: https://www.acma.gov.au/-/media/Research-and-Analysis/Report/pdf/Communications-report-2017-18-pdf.pdf?la=en.

49.       Kornfield R, Smith KC, Szczypka G, Vera L, and Emery S. Earned Media and Public Engagement With CDC's "Tips From Former Smokers" Campaign: An Analysis of Online News and Blog Coverage. J Med Internet Res, 2015; 17(1):e12. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25604520

50.       Kite J, Foley BC, Grunseit AC, and Freeman B. Please like me: Facebook and public health communication. PLoS One, 2016; 11(9):e0162765. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0162765

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