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

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The University of Minnesota, along with two other universities, will investigate how media portrays health equity in the media and how often it covers the topic.

Cornell University, Wesleyan University and the University of Minnesota School of Public Health were awarded grants to monitor media content and analyze its effect on attitudes, values, and behavior.

Collaborative Media and Messaging will connect journalists, public health officials and affected communities to share the findings of this research to advance race equality and health equity. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grants $5 million through August 2025.

The research will be split into three parts by the universities: Wesleyan will watch news coverage and monitor political ads to identify emerging social safety net issues. Cornell will also conduct surveys and experiments to assess if the messaging promotes health and racial equality. Finally, the University of Minnesota will interview and listen to stakeholders in journalism, community organizing, health equity advocacy and public health to find out the problems in race and equity coverage.


Reporting Equity reporting

According to Sarah Gollust (one of the authors of a 2009 study on equity reporting), this type of research has never been done before. This study tried to quantify how much print news coverage was about Type 2 diabetes. It found that less than 14% of articles mentioned any type of social or racial disparity.

She stated that the study set her up to monitor how health equity is covered in media. The new grant will provide more resources and a wider scope to address the same question.

A study looked at the prevalence and framing health disparities in New England’s two largest cities. The study found that only 3.2% of all stories in print about health disparities were related to disparities or other social determinants.

Rebekah Nagler was one of the researchers in that study and is now an associate professor at University of Minnesota’s Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Nagler works with Gollust on the public-health research hub.

Nagler stated, “I have been very interested in, and concerned about the extent to which public is exposed to competing message about health.”

The researchers expect to collect more examples of media neglect by the end of the three year grant and to receive community input in order to improve media representations of race and health issues.

Gollust stated that the new project was similar to previous work, but with a million times more.

The Minnesota crew will work with communicators from communities that are underserved, professional journalists, health equality advocates, and traditional public-health organizations within the first year. Gollust stated that the researchers will engage with the community to learn about the tensions and challenges surrounding communication about systemic racism. This will help them to plan their research agenda.

In 2014, Gollust collaborated with two universities to examine how news agencies covered the launch of new insurance exchanges.

The team monitored television news coverage, health insurance ads, and then linked these findings to survey data to determine how messaging affected insurance buying behavior and attitudes regarding the Affordable Care Act.

Gollust stated that one theme in previous research on news media and content, notably television news and media coverage of issues like child care and paid leave, was that journalists don’t address health equity. We counted up the stories that are featured on television and news media outlets when they feature anecdotes and exemplars of people. It was mainly white women who were being highlighted.

Gollust’s research on snapshots of different years and topics revealed that journalists weren’t covering health equity issues.


Recent media shift

For many years, health disparities along racial lines exist. Disparities are evident, from the high maternal mortality rates for Blacks in the U.S. to diabetes rates.

Gollust stated that media reports about these disparities are rare and far between.

In a moment of crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic caused the public to see that certain populations were more affected than others. The overall COVID-19 death rate for Indigenous Americans in 2020 was 2.6 times higher than the rate that for whites. According to APM Research Lab, the death rate for Black Americans was 2.1 times higher than the rate of whites.

Overrepresentation of these groups in COVID deaths statistics revealed existing social inequalities linked to race, class, and access to the healthcare system. All of which were exacerbated after the pandemic.

“I believe in some ways the pandemic was necessary to show how all of these features, such as politicization, conflict within the media environment as well as the drowning out health equity messages — messages which really center the needs for communities affected by systemic racist and then the large push to concentrate on systemic racism that occurred through racial injustice reckoning and COVID-19 disparities, were part of our work,” Gollust stated.

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