Researchers say the findings could help improve: communication between physicians and patients, patient attitudes toward various conditions, newspaper coverage of neurologic conditions, and general health care coverage.
The study involved a content analysis of 1,203 newspaper articles published during 2003, with researchers analyzing whether stigmatizing language was used in U.S. newspaper coverage of neurologic diseases. Also performed was fact checking of sources and stories for medical errors.
Newspaper stories were culled from The New York Times, as well as eight regional newspapers with circulation of more than 200,000. Eleven neurologic diseases were the focus, with a total of 21 percent (excluding wire stories) containing language deemed stigmatizing.
Sources of stigma within an article included reporters (55 percent), patients (26 percent), family (17 percent) and physicians (16 percent).
Findings show that 20 percent of analyzed articles had medical errors or exaggerations. Overstating treatment effectiveness was the most common exaggeration.
Researchers also discovered that neurologic conditions with the highest prevalence were among the least covered topics, while less-common diseases such as Alzheimer's were topics in 33 percent of the articles.
Newspapers are among the public's most trusted media for health care coverage and could have a disproportionate influence on reader beliefs about neurologic disorders, the study's authors say.
"Health coverage has a big impact on how people view things," says Joseph Sirven, M.D., a neurologist from Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz. "Sometimes if there's a negative perception, a patient might give up before they start."
An editorial in the March issue of Mayo Clinic Proceedings calls the study's findings important and concerning. Editorial authors Jessica Fishman, Ph.D., and David Casarett, M.D., say further research could help decrease forms of stigma and ultimately improve public health.
Dr. Sirven says newspapers cover neurologic diseases correctly most of the time, but the articles with stigmatizing language, errors or exaggerations can have far-reaching effects. Patients might experience inflated hopes based on a misleading article about a new treatment or have a negative self-image when diagnosed with a disease deemed debilitating.
"We ask that as reporters are writing, they stop and think about the choice of their words," Dr. Sirven says. "Not to censor or edit, but to be mindful that sometimes you're creating or adding to the burden of disease."
Common consequences for victims of stigmatization could include social exclusion, financial hardship and forms of discrimination. Such attitudes may prevent people from seeking diagnosis or may impair their willingness to access health care, thus contributing to the morbidity and mortality of disease.
The study paired unlikely partners -- physicians and journalism school experts -- and was the first to examine stigma and accuracy within newspaper coverage of neurologic diseases.
Other researchers included Joseph Caspermeyer, Edward Sylvester, and George Watson, Ph.D., all from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Arizona State University; and Joseph Drazkowski, M.D., from Mayo Clinic in Arizona.
A peer-review journal, Mayo Clinic Proceedings publishes original articles and reviews dealing with clinical and laboratory medicine, clinical research, basic science research and clinical epidemiology. Mayo Clinic Proceedings is published monthly by Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research as part of its commitment to the medical education of physicians. The journal has been published for more than 75 years and has a circulation of 130,000 nationally and internationally. Articles are available online at www.mayoclinicproceedings.com.
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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