Intended for healthcare professionals

Rapid response to:


Bad press for doctors: 21 year survey of three national newspapers

BMJ 2001; 323 doi: (Published 06 October 2001) Cite this as: BMJ 2001;323:782

Rapid Response:

Medicine and the Media- Tabloids versus Broadsheets

I read with great interest the study by Ali et al- Bad Press for
Doctors: 21 year survey of three national newspapers 1. I recently
completed a research project with the BMA Public Affairs Division where I
analysed a one month period of all medicine / health science reporting in
the 21 major national newspapers. In total 799 articles were coded into a
database and graded according to whether they were positive, negative,
mixed or did not mention, the government, the NHS, individual doctors and
the wider profession. I coded the articles on the basis of a fixed pro-
forma and when I carried out a blind reliability test on a random series
of 30 articles with another coder the total agreement level was 87%.

My data showed that there was a significantly higher proportion of
negative articles about individual doctors than positive articles in the
tabloids compared with the broadsheets (a ratio of 2.9 compared with 1.4,
chi squared = 6.244, d.f.=1, p=0.013). When analysing health articles
that mentioned the government a similar trend was apparent with a negative
to positive ratio of 6.6 for the tabloids and 2.3 for the broadsheets
(chi squared = 4.689, d.f.=1, p=0.030). There was no significant
difference in the ratio of negative to positive articles about the NHS or
the profession as a whole.

It was interesting to note that the Daily Mail had a ratio of
negative to positive articles of 1.2, closer to the broadsheets than the
other tabloids. This possibly suggests it did not represent a typical
tabloid in the Ali et al study. In comparison 40% of health articles in
the Sun were negative about individual doctors (compared with the average
for all papers of 18%) and the negative to positive ratio was 6.7.

Perhaps most importantly negative stories about individual doctors in
the tabloids were significantly more likely to generalise to the
profession as a whole (in 9.6% of cases) when compared with the
broadsheets (1.6% of the time, chi squared = 4.014, d.f.=1, p=0.045).
These types of articles are dangerous as they can create a link in the
readers mind between one bad doctor and the profession as a whole. It was
notable that in this case the Daily Mail did seem anti-doctor, in that 18%
of articles negative about individual doctors were also negative about the

Whilst the Ali et al study concluded that there was no significant
change in the ratio of negative to positive articles over time, I believe
I showed that there are significant differences in the ratio across the
range of different newspapers. This has important implications regarding
the publics opinion of doctors, especially when one considers that the
Daily Mail, Sun, Express and Mirror account for 71% of daily newspaper
circulation in this country 2.

Competing interests: No competing interests

07 November 2001
Christopher Peters
Final Year Medical Student,
University of Leeds Medical School