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Media matters for more than health disparities

Most people — including the public, patients, physicians, and policy makers — rely on the news media to translate research discoveries into useful information. Reporters, in turn, depend on reliable sources to tip them off to significant stories and to find a human-interest angle.

Project IMPACT (Influencing Media and Public Agenda on Cancer and Tobacco Disparities) is developing and testing a community-based strategy targeting this news process to change the media coverage on disparities in tobacco use and tobacco-related diseases, especially cancer. The workshops for community leaders and local media draw on studies by project leader K. "Vish" Viswanath, PhD (DFCI), and his colleagues that have revealed the occupational practices of health and medical science journalists.

The same evidence-based lessons on engaging the media apply to a broader swath of health advocates and science professionals who share similar goals of informing the public about advances and issues that may affect their lives as individuals and as decision-makers in a democracy.

"Philosophically, we’re not just about tobacco and lung cancer," Viswanath says. "The skills are portable to other disease areas. Some people talk about knowledge translation from bench to bedside. We call this bench to trench."

In a national survey of more than 450 health and science journalists representing nearly as many local and national broadcast and print media outlets, he and his colleagues characterized how reporters and editors on these beats initiate, prioritize, and develop news stories related to health and medicine.

In one key finding, more than half of the story ideas originated as a suggestion by a news source, defined as a person with whom a reporter is frequently in contact. "The media can be good assets, but you need to engage them and understand how they work," Viswanath says. "It's not just about sending a press release and expecting a story in one day. It's about engaging journalists and working with them over time."

In addition to understanding how journalists find and construct stories, it helps to understand the constraints under which they work. "Most reporters work for newspapers that are small or have few resources, where they generate four or five stories a day — including a stabbing in one neighborhood, the opening of a new grocery store, and a story on politics — all by 5 p.m.," he says.

With these tools, community organizers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, may be able to help media focus on environmental and social conditions related to disparities in tobacco use instead of solely on individual lifestyles and behaviors, Viswanath says. Perhaps the resulting public agenda will reflect on marketing and promotion of tobacco products or cessation support services instead of focusing only on personal willpower and addiction.