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An environment of misunderstanding: Newspaper coverage of birth defects in the US

Michael Voloudakis, PhD, MPH1, Amy Case, MAHS2, and Ann F. Phelps, MPH2. (1) Public Policy Research Institute, Texas A&M University, HC Dulie Bell Building, Suite 329, College Station, TX 77843, 979-845-6759, michaelv@ppri.tamu.edu, (2) Texas Birth Defects Monitoring Division, Texas Department of Health, 1100 W. 49th Street, Austin, TX 78756

Approximately one in every thirty-three children born each year in the United States has a serious birth defect. Although the mass media are generally considered a large source of health information for the general public, little is known about how the media cover birth defects. Thus, a content analysis was conducted of all newspaper articles between 2001 and 2003 found in the EBSCO Newspaper Source database covering birth defects. Both general and specific searches resulted in 381 articles that were placed into 19 categories. Results show that the newspaper media are currently displaying an unrepresentative view of birth defects in the US. When mentioned, defects are likely to be referenced in only general terms that are not accurately representative (i.e. genetic defect). In addition, specific defects are covered at rates either drastically higher or lower than found in the general population. For example, although cardiac and circulatory problems make up almost 50% of birth defects, they were mentioned in less than 10% of identified articles. Finally, articles listed potential risk factors in proportions higher than actually found in the population. Although risk factors are known in approximately 30% of defects, over 50% of newspaper articles mentioned or suggested contributing factors many general and without scientific merit (i.e. pollution). The main ramification of such incorrect coverage is a lack of understanding regarding the types, prevalence, and cause of birth defects. Subsequently, researchers and practitioners are encouraged to ensure that media outlets correctly interpret and disseminate the information which they are provided.

Learning Objectives:

  • At the conclusion of the session, the participant (learner) in this session will be
  • able to

    Keywords: Media, Birth Defects

    Presenting author's disclosure statement:
    I do not have any significant financial interest/arrangement or affiliation with any organization/institution whose products or services are being discussed in this session.

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    The 132nd Annual Meeting (November 6-10, 2004) of APHA