TV news skews viewer perception of threats to life and limb

December 03, 2001

Reporting in the first epidemiological study of its kind, UCLA researchers say television news in Los Angeles skews viewer perception of actual threats to life and limb, causing unwarranted anxiety over some risks while masking the danger of others.

The study, published in the December edition of the peer-reviewed Western Journal of Medicine, shows that local TV newscasts in late 1996 and early 1997 reported 47.8 percent of the actual traumatic deaths occurring in Los Angeles County. Meanwhile, just 3.4 percent of traumatic injuries attracted coverage.

Nearly all traumatic deaths by homicide, air travel, fire, natural or environmental factors, and law-enforcement activity drew coverage, accounting for 65.6 percent of all traumatic deaths in the news, while constituting just 31.4 percent of actual traumatic deaths in the county. In contrast, deaths due to motor vehicle crashes were portrayed about a third less than actual occurrence, and all other causes of traumatic death -- such as accidental poisoning, falls and suicide -- were portrayed in much lower proportion to actual occurrence.

In reporting stories involving non-fatal injuries, local TV news crews covered about one in five assaults resulting in hospitalization. Meanwhile, injuries due to fires and water travel were portrayed proportionally more often than any other cause of injury. Underrepresented injuries included accidental poisonings, motor vehicle non-traffic events, falls, natural or environmental factors, near drownings, and injuries related to falling objects, machinery, explosions or electricity.

"The primary focus of local news is on events with high visual intrigue, such as air crashes and homicides. Stories about deaths and injuries with lesser visual content -- suicides, falls, accidental poisoning -- are rarely shown," said lead author Dr. David McArthur, an epidemiologist at the UCLA School of Medicine and adjunct associate professor at the UCLA School of Public Health.

"The absence of context, supporting information and education about the non-criminal circumstances surrounding most traumatic events covered by local television newscasts leaves viewers misinformed about the relative risk of traumatic events to life and limb," he said. Such misinformation places additional demands on health-care professionals to uncover and correct a variety of misunderstandings and misapprehensions by patients and families, especially when talking with younger children, according to McArthur.

"A handful of news directors have offered 'family-friendly' news formats, with explicit guidelines about what forms of violence, injury and death should or should not be allowed to air," McArthur said. "Self-censorship, however, raises complex problems in its own right and has not met with audience favor.

"An alternative might be for the medical profession to help educate news broadcasters about the cause and frequencies of traumatic deaths and injuries," he said.

Examining videotapes provided by UCLA's Film and Television Archives, the research team analyzed the news content of 1,134 news broadcasts -- English and Spanish -- from nine Los Angeles stations airing on 63 randomly selected weekdays in late 1996 and early 1997.

Using epidemiological methods, researchers identified the underlying cause of death or injury in each of 828 local television news stories that included reports of traumatic injuries or deaths that had occurred within the past three days in Los Angeles County. Odds ratios were computed using deaths by homicide or injuries sustained in assaults as the reference group.
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The project was conducted under the auspices of the Southern California Injury Prevention Research Center at UCLA. Directed by Jess Kraus, a professor of epidemiology in the UCLA School of Public Health, the center is one of 10 research centers funded by the National Center for Injury Control and Prevention.

The National Center for Injury Control and Prevention's homepage is available online at www.cdc.gov/ncipc/default.htm. The Southern California Injury Prevention Research Center's homepage is available at www.ph.ucla.edu/sciprc/sciprc1.htm.

University of California - Los Angeles

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