From public health to print: an interdisciplinary study of the presentation of cancer awareness messages in UK newspapers

Cook, Neil (2019) From public health to print: an interdisciplinary study of the presentation of cancer awareness messages in UK newspapers. Doctoral thesis, University of Central Lancashire.

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National public health cancer awareness messages focus on raising awareness of cancer signs and symptoms and encouraging early diagnosis with the aim of increasing national cancer survival rates.

While national and regional newspapers are key targets for message dissemination, evaluation documents and a scoping review identified that their representation in UK newspapers is under-researched, particularly in regional publications. The language of cancer, which is a contentious issue, has also not been explored.

In response, this thesis makes an original contribution by examining how cancer awareness messages are reported in UK newspapers, and the reasons for this, within a public health context. An interdisciplinary, multiple methods analysis is presented consisting of: 1) a manifest content analysis of the presence of key cancer awareness messages, and the people featured in, 447 national and regional UK newspaper articles, 2) a corpus linguistic analysis of the articles’ language (specifically, word collocation, key words and key semantic domains), 3) a thematic analysis of fourteen semi-structured interviews with journalists and press officers. Integrated analysis was conducted using the ‘following a thread’ approach.

Cancer awareness messages were lacking, even in articles that explicitly highlighted the awareness campaign. People featured tended to be unrepresentative of those most at risk of cancer. Cancer was often framed in terms of negative outcomes and unpleasant treatment. Battle metaphor was prevalent. Interviews suggested that newsworthiness factors and journalism norms are contributors to this, but that scope for change may be limited.

Currently, UK newspaper reporting of cancer often does not reflect contemporary medical opinion, may skew public perceptions of risk and reinforce cancer fear. This may contribute to delayed diagnosis and, potentially, negatively influence survival rates. Future research is needed to test the assertions of this work but may also benefit from interdisciplinary collaborative efforts to improve approaches to public health message dissemination.

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