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Health News and Responsibility

How Frames Create Blame


Lesa Hatley Major and Stacie Meihaus Jankowski

Who the public blames for health problems determines who the public believes is responsible for solving those health problems. Health policies targeting the broader public are the most effective way to improve health. The research approach described in this book will increase public support for critical health policies. The authors systematically organized and analyzed 25 years of thematic and episodic framing research in health news to create an approach to reframe responsibility in health news in order to gain public support for health policies. They apply their method to two of the top health issues in world—obesity and mental health—and conclude by discussing future research and plans for working with other health scholars, health practitioners, and journalists.

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Chapter Three: Research on Thematic and Episodic Frames: The Health News Connection


chapter three

Research on Thematic and Episodic Frames: The Health News Connection

Early in our analysis of the research articles selected for this project, we noticed the high number of studies using thematic and episodic frames to investigate health news. While we were not surprised to see this trend based on our own academic research on health news, we decided it was necessary to discuss why this is the case.

As we explained in the summary of the book, Is Anyone Responsible, Iyengar’s thematic and episodic frames introduced a realistic and useful way to categorize frames in news coverage of political issues. Iyengar content analyzed five contemporary political issues covered by ABC, CBS and NBC between 1981 and 1986, he demonstrated most news coverage was primarily episodic framing or thematic framing, usually a combination of both (Aaroe, 2011). Numerous media effect studies have established these frames can sway audience members’ attributions of responsibility and policy views (Major, 2018; Barry, Brescoll, & Gollust, 2013; Major, 2009; Iyengar, 1991).

Our current investigation shows for the past 25 years, health studies dominate the academic research on episodic and thematic framing in news. It seems appropriate for us to explore why health research has overshadowed other areas in thematic and episodic framing in news. While others may identify different reasons for the preponderance of these frames in academic research on health news, we argue three primary reasons account for this trend.

First, since the...

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