Evaluation of stigmatizing language and medical errors in neurology coverage by US newspapers

Mayo Clin Proc. 2006 Mar;81(3):300-6. doi: 10.4065/81.3.300.


Objectives: To analyze US newspaper coverage of neurologic diseases to determine whether stigmatizing language is used in describing patients and examine its sources where found and to examine stories for medical errors.

Methods: A content analysis of newspaper articles was performed for 2003 using the Lexis-Nexis database. Keyword searches for 11 common neurologic conditions were performed for The New York Times and 8 regional newspapers with circulation greater than 200,000.

Results: A total of 1203 stories focusing on 11 neurologic conditions were recovered. Newspaper coverage did not reflect disease prevalence (rank correlation, p=-0.009; P=.98). The topics most covered were Alzheimer disease and other dementias (400 stories, 33% of total), which were eventually combined Into 1 category for purposes of data analysis. Conditions with the highest prevalence were among the least covered topics, including migraine (34 stories, 3% of total) and head trauma (19 stories, 2% of total). Stigmatizing language was found in 15% of all stories. Excluding wire stories, the average among locally produced newspaper stories was higher (21%). Stories on epilepsy (30%) and migraine (29%) contained the highest frequency of stigmatizing language. Sources of stigma within a story included reporters (55%), patients (26%), family (17%), and physicians (16%). In an accuracy analysis, 20% of sampled stories contained medical errors or exaggerations, with half of these concerning neurodegenerative conditions.

Conclusion: A total of 21% of all stories (excluding wire stories) contained language judged stigmatizing, with reporters as the most common source of the stigmatizing language. A total of 20% of analyzed stories had medical errors or exaggerations, the latter most often overstating treatment effectiveness.

MeSH terms

  • Attitude to Health
  • Humans
  • Language*
  • Medical Errors*
  • Nervous System Diseases*
  • Newspapers as Topic*
  • Prejudice
  • Public Opinion
  • Stereotyping*
  • United States