Online health information - what the newspapers tell their readers: a systematic content analysis

Brian A. McCaw, Kieran J. McGlade, James C. McElnay*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

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Background: This study investigated the nature of newspaper reporting about online health information in the UK and US. Internet users frequently search for health information online, although the accuracy of the information retrieved varies greatly and can be misleading. Newspapers have the potential to influence public health behaviours, but information has been lacking in relation to how newspapers portray online health information to their readers.

Methods: The newspaper database Nexis (R) UK was searched for articles published from 2003 - 2012 relating to online health information. Systematic content analysis of articles published in the highest circulation newspapers in the UK and US was performed. A second researcher coded a 10% sample to establish inter-rater reliability of coding.

Results: In total, 161 newspaper articles were included in the analysis. Publication was most frequent in 2003, 2008 and 2009, which coincided with global threats to public health. UK broadsheet newspapers were significantly more likely to cover online health information than UK tabloid newspapers (p = 0.04) and only one article was identified in US tabloid newspapers. Articles most frequently appeared in health sections. Among the 79 articles that linked online health information to specific diseases or health topics, diabetes was the most frequently mentioned disease, cancer the commonest group of diseases and sexual health the most frequent health topic. Articles portrayed benefits of obtaining online health information more frequently than risks. Quotations from health professionals portrayed mixed opinions regarding public access to online health information. 108 (67.1%) articles directed readers to specific health-related web sites. 135 (83.9%) articles were rated as having balanced judgement and 76 (47.2%) were judged as having excellent quality reporting. No difference was found in the quality of reporting between UK and US articles.

Conclusions: Newspaper coverage of online health information was low during the 10-year period 2003 to 2012. Journalists tended to emphasise the benefits and understate the risks of online health information and the quality of reporting varied considerably. Newspapers directed readers to sources of online health information during global epidemics although, as most articles appeared in the health sections of broadsheet newspapers, coverage was limited to a relatively small readership.

Original languageEnglish
Article number1316
Number of pages9
JournalBMC Public Health
Publication statusPublished - 23 Dec 2014


  • Newspapers
  • Newspaper article
  • Internet
  • Health information
  • Online health information
  • NEWS

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