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University of Minnesota to dive into media portrayals of race and health equity

The $5 million project will connect with journalists, public health officials, affected communities and advocacy organizations to apply the research findings to advance race and health equity.

COVID patient
The COVID-19 pandemic was a real-time health crisis where the public saw specific populations were affected at much higher rates.
REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

The University of Minnesota and two other universities will be researching how the media portrays health equity and how frequently it covers the topic.

Cornell University, Wesleyan University, and the University of Minnesota School of Public Health have been awarded a grant to track media content and examine its impact on attitudes, values and behavior.

The project, Collaborative on Media and Messaging, will also connect with journalists, public health officials, affected communities and advocacy organizations to apply the research findings to advance race and health equity. The $5 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation runs through August of 2025.

The universities will split the research into three parts: Wesleyan will monitor news coverage and political commercials to identify developing social safety net issues and messaging that have racial equity implications; Cornell will conduct surveys and experiments to determine if the messaging is effective for promoting health and racial equity; and the University of Minnesota will conduct interviews and listening sessions with stakeholders in health equity advocacy, community organizing, public health practice and journalism to identify the problem areas in race and health equity coverage.

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Lack of equity reporting

This type of research has not been done to this magnitude before, according to Sarah Gollust, one of the authors of a 2009 study of equity reporting. That study tried to quantify the proportion of print news coverage of Type 2 diabetes that examined health disparities. It found less than 14% of the articles referenced any kind of social or racial group disparities.

She said that study launched her agenda into monitoring the extent to which health equity gets covered in media. This new grant will examine that same question with more resources and a broader scope.

In 2016, a study examined the prevalence and framing of health disparities in two New England cities. It found that print news coverage of health disparities was rare, with only 3.2% of the stories published during one year discussed disparities or social determinants of health.

One of the researchers from that study, Rebekah Nagler, is now an associate professor at the University of Minnesota’s Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Nagler is working on the public health research hub with Gollust.

“I’ve been really interested in, and concerned about, the extent to which the public is exposed to competing messages about health,” Nagler said.

By the end of the three-year grant, the researchers hope to have more examples of media neglect and receive community input to change how media portrays race and health topics.

“This new project is like previous work that we’ve done, but times a million; sort of on steroids,” Gollust said.

Within the first year, the Minnesota crew will engage with communicators from underserved communities, professional journalists, health equity advocates and traditional public health organizations. By engaging with the community, the researchers aim to understand the tension points and challenges around communication about systemic racism and use that to guide their research agenda, Gollust said.

Gollust previously collaborated with the two other universities in 2014 to study how news organizations were covering the launch of new health insurance exchanges.

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The team tracked television news coverage and health insurance advertisements, then linked those findings to survey data to see how messaging affected people’s insurance buying behaviors and attitudes about the Affordable Care Act.

“One theme we’ve found in our previous research examining news media and content, particularly television news and media coverage on issues like child care, paid leave and health insurance, is that journalists are not addressing health equity,” Gollust said. “Television, news media outlets, when they feature stories and specific sort of anecdotes or exemplars of people, we counted them up, and they tended to be white women who were being featured.”

Based on their research from snapshots of different topics and different years, Gollust found that journalists were not covering issues using a health equity lens.

Recent media shift

Health disparities along racial lines have existed for countless years. From the data on high rates of maternal mortality for Black people in the U.S. to the diabetes rates, disparities have been prevalent.

Media reports on those disparities have been few and far between, Gollust said.

The COVID-19 pandemic was a real-time health crisis in which the public saw that the disease affected specific populations at much higher rates. In 2020, the overall COVID-19 mortality rate for Indigenous Americans was 2.6 times as high as the rate for whites; the mortality rate of Latino Americans was 2.3 times as high as the rate for whites, and for Black Americans, 2.1 times as high as the rate for whites, according to APM Research Lab.

The overrepresentation of those groups in COVID death statistics highlighted the existing social inequalities tied to race, class and access to the health care system, all exacerbated by the pandemic.

“I think in some ways it took the pandemic to demonstrate how all of these features that were part of our work, like politicization, conflict in the media environment, as well as just the drowning out of health equity messages — messages that really center the needs of communities affected by systemic racism and then the sort of large push to focus on systemic racism that happened through racial justice reckoning and COVID-19 disparities,” Gollust said.