Rural newspapers have power to influence people’s health, but few health articles are being published in Kentucky, study finds

By Tara Kaprowy
Kentucky Health News

Though studies suggest that newspapers can influence people’s decisions about their health and can even lead to public-policy changes, for the most part Kentucky’s rural newspaper editors are publishing very few health-related stories, a report compiled at the University of Kentucky concluded.

The six-month study found more than 1,200 articles  primarily about health were published in 131 rural Kentucky newspapers, including opinion pieces, reprints, press releases, briefs and letters to the editor. That averaged to nine stories per newspaper in six months, though daily papers tended to run far more articles than non-dailies (52 percent of dailies ran health articles 1 to 2 times per week while 68 percent of non-dailies ran health articles less than once a month).
Speaking at the third-annual Kentucky Health Literacy Summit, study co-author Al Cross said he wasn’t surprised by the findings, sensing “there wasn’t a great deal of coverage out there to help people live healthier lives.” But Cross said his goal as director of UK’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues “is to help rural newspapers help define the public agenda.”
“In Kentucky,” he said, “that needs to be about health.”
The topic of health-care funding and policy accounted for 35 percent of the articles published, though co-author Sarah Vos said that number is likely skewed because the time period analyzed included a legislative session during which there was extensive discussion about Medicaid.

Stories on drugs and alcohol accounted for 12 percent of the total, followed by tobacco/smoking (9.5 percent) and exercise, food, diet or obesity (8.6 percent). Vos also found stories that did run were often incomplete, with 40 percent failing to contextualize the problem for the reader. Only 20 percent mentioned health disparities, the differences in health between geographic areas and demographic sectors.

While there is a dearth of health reporting in rural newspapers — all newspapers but those that serve the Lexington, Louisville and Cincinnati areas were included in the study — they could have considerable pull in the health decisions people make. Vos cited one study showing media coverage can influence individual health decisions and preventive behaviors, and one that showed coverage of health issues can lead to both changes in public policy and public perception.
Rural newspapers are well read by their readership, with the average reader spending about 39 minutes reading their local paper. Sixty percent of adults say their rural paper is their main source of news, Vos said. “Rural newspapers have a special relationship with readers,” she said. “It’s intimate. One researcher even called them an extended member of the family.”

For a copy of the paper, click here.

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