Background Medical news that appears on newspaper front pages is intended to reach a wide audience, but how this type of medical news is prepared and distributed has not been systematically researched. We thus quantified the level of visibility achieved by front-page medical stories in the United States and analyzed their news sources.
Methodology Using the online resource Newseum, we investigated front-page newspaper coverage of four prominent medical stories, and a high-profile non-medical news story as a control, reported in the US in 2007. Two characteristics were quantified by two raters: which newspaper titles carried each target front-page story (interrater agreement, >96%; kappa, >0.92) and the news sources of each target story (interrater agreement, >94%; kappa, >0.91). National rankings of the top 200 US newspapers by audited circulation were used to quantify the extent of coverage as the proportion of the total circulation of ranked newspapers in Newseum.
Findings In total, 1630 front pages were searched. Each medical story appeared on the front pages of 85 to 117 (67.5%– 78.7%) ranked newspaper titles that had a cumulative daily circulation of 23.1 to 33.4 million, or 61.8% to 88.4% of all newspapers. In contrast, the non-medical story achieved front-page coverage in 152 (99.3%) newspaper titles with a total circulation of 41.0 million, or 99.8% of all newspapers. Front-page medical stories varied in their sources, but the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, New York Times and the Associated Press together supplied 61.7% of the total coverage of target front-page medical stories.
Conclusion Front-page coverage of medical news from different sources is more accurately revealed by analysis of circulation counts rather than of newspaper titles. Journals wishing to widen knowledge of research news and organizations with important health announcements should target at least the four dominant media organizations identified in this study.