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Tuesday 16th September 2003

Media hype over health?

A personal view from Roger Harrabin, Today correspondent and co-author of "Health in the News".

Does the media hype issues like SARS, MMR or the NHS crisis while under-playing much bigger risks public health risk like smoking or obesity?

That's the claim made by health experts in a new report for the think tank, The King's Fund.

It claims that if you die of measles you are 34,000 times more likely to have your cause of death mentioned on the news than if you die of smoking.

The report analyses news output in the BBC and in three newspapers and compares the level of coverage of risk stories with the real likelihood of someone being harmed by the risk in question. It suggests that scares are usually over-played in the media. Smoking kills 120,000 people a year, but rarely features in the news.

The BBC News programmes surveyed for the research ran one story on smoking for every eight and half thousand people that died from a smoking-related disease. At the other end of the scale the BBC ran one story per 0.33 people who died of vCJD and one story per 0.25 people who died of measles.

The newspapers showed a similar pattern, but their coverage was more proportionate because the news output was balanced by features where public health issues were more likely to figure.

The research identifies news as the key area of reporting because big running news stories often push governments into changing policy. Taxpayers now invest around 100 times more to save a life on the railways than the roads - that's partly due to media pressure, because politicians tend to equate media interest with public opinion - sometimes falsely.

The report focuses on the alleged NHS "crisis" and claims lives could be saved much more effectively and cheaply by public health interventions on issues like smoking and obesity than on hi-tech medicine in hospitals.

It agrees that journalists must continue to report new stories and hold government to account. But it calls for more effort to put scares in context, to rein back scares before they spin out of control and to seek out fresh stories on major risks to health.

Health in the News, Risk Reporting and Media Influence, by Roger Harrabin, Anna Coote and Jessica Allen.

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