Death makes news: the social impact of disease on newspaper coverage

J Health Soc Behav. 2000 Sep;41(3):347-67.


This paper is an integrated analysis of newspaper coverage, epidemiological rates, and recent social history of six prominent diseases.

Hypotheses: Newspaper coverage of a disease has three developmental stages (emergence, maturation, and decline & death). Trends in newspaper coverage of a disease reflect trends in its mortality, prevalence, and incidence. Magnitudes of newspaper coverage of diseases reflect their differential mortality rates.

Data: Using the LEXIS-NEXIS news archive for major U.S. newspapers, we retrieve articles about cancer, heart disease, AIDS, diabetes, Alzheimer disease, and arthritis for the period 1977-1997. We also obtain mortality, prevalence, and incidence trends for the six diseases.

Results: During the two decades, newspaper coverage emerges for AIDS and Alzheimer disease and is in the mature stage for the other diseases; declines begin for heart disease and AIDS. Trends in news coverage closely parallel mortality trends, and less consistently prevalence and incidence trends. Sharp downturns and upturns in mortality are mirrored in news volume. High-mortality diseases prompt both the most news coverage and the largest proportions of articles with death topics.

Conclusion: Newspaper coverage of diseases is responsive to their mortality levels and trends.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome / mortality
  • Alzheimer Disease / mortality
  • Arthritis / mortality
  • Heart Diseases / mortality
  • Humans
  • Information Services / trends*
  • Mortality*
  • Neoplasms / mortality
  • Newspapers as Topic*
  • Public Health / statistics & numerical data
  • Public Opinion*