Media misdiagnosis? : a longitudinal analysis of frames, primes, and public opinion in relation to newspaper coverage of HIV/AIDS and smoking
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Medical issues are considered among the most popular topics in the media. However, because much health news research tends to focus on specific attributes rather than macro frames that are universally applicable to medical issues at large, paired with the fact that most framing studies do not examine topics for more than a decade, this study explores how macro frames and stereotype primes in medical news change over time as well how these changes affect public opinion. This was accomplished by developing a content analysis to longitudinally examine medical news content from The New York Times and The Washington Post. Two topics— HIV/AIDS and smoking—were strategically selected for this study, as they both have been considered major issues for decades and written about extensively. A follow‐up, agenda‐setting study comparing HIV/AIDS and smoking news to related public opinion polls was also conducted to determine how much the media influence the public over time and if the general opinion corresponds with framing and priming changes in the news. Previous research about frames, most of which examines less than a decade of coverage, emphasizes that topics in the news tend to gradually change from being episodic to thematic in nature. Therefore, the first study of this dissertation contributes to framing theory by determining whether similar patterns occur when analyzing issues during a longer period of time. The findings of the first study revealed that when examined over the course of decades, frames did not change in a particular direction; rather, there was an ebb and flow of frame changes based on whether the events of a particular year were inherently episodic (e.g., a celebrity death) or thematic (e.g., the release of a groundbreaking study). Because journalists strive for objectivity, how the news is framed tends to be influenced by the sources they choose. Therefore, this study also examined what sources predict the frames found in news about HIV/AIDS and smoking. The results indicated that experts and government organizations were significant predictors of thematic news while laypeople predicted episodic coverage. This study also determined that the media did not perpetuate exaggerated stereotypes in coverage of HIV/AIDS or smoking. The second study found that coverage of HIV/AIDS with combined episodic and loss frames was significantly associated with the public attributing the contraction of HIV/AIDS to individual blame. News that featured both thematic and loss frames significantly correlated with the public being in favor of societal efforts to end smoking. Thus, this study confirmed the results from experimental research that found pairing thematic and loss frames causes similar audience effects. However, unlike the former experiments, this study concluded that episodic/loss frame combinations influence public opinion as well.