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Reporters struggle to cover comas in newspaper articles
By Mayo Clinic
Oct 19, 2006, 23:56

Newspaper articles skew coverage of comas by focusing heavily on patients who are more likely to awaken and recover, thus possibly leading the public to believe that coma patients have better odds than they truly do.

These findings of a Mayo Clinic study on how U.S. newspapers cover comas are published in the October issue of Mayo Clinic Proceedings. This study is the first of its kind and follows a study published earlier this year in Neurology on how comas are represented in film. The lead author of both articles is Eelco F.M. Wijdicks, M.D., a neurointensivist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester.

Dr. Wijdicks traces the public's interest in coma patients to the Terri Schiavo case, which created intense interest in how coma patients are treated. Schiavo's situation illustrates the need for the public to be well informed about comas, Dr. Wijdicks says. The number of newspaper stories about coma increased in Florida after the Schiavo case.

For the Mayo Clinic study published in Proceedings, Dr. Wijdicks and his daughter, Marilou Wijdicks, identified 340 newspaper articles in 50 leading newspapers, one in each state, over five years to ascertain how well newspapers cover comas. California and Florida had the highest number of newspaper articles concerning coma. Few articles had misrepresentations or inaccuracies, but newspaper editors and reporters struggled with a few key issues.

Often, news reports focused on young coma patients who were the victims of violence or had been in an accident. These patients are among the most likely to awaken and recover, Dr. Wijdicks says, compared with the typical patient who is older and in a coma due to a life-threatening illness or due to resuscitation.

"The truth is patients do wake from prolonged coma but often in a disabled state," Dr. Wijdicks says. "Many are severely disabled."

Newspapers also demonstrated a tendency not to mention in the headline that coma patients had been placed into a coma by physician-prescribed medication, the authors say. Only careful reading of the full article would inform readers that a person's coma was medically induced. Without reading carefully, these readers would not realize the cause of coma and probability of awakening.

Reporters also tended to rely on police reports for details in articles, whereas medical sources could provide more thorough and accurate information, Dr. Wijdicks says.

Overall, newspaper reporting on comas is done fairly well, but may give readers a more positive outlook on comas than is witnessed in medical facilities, the study authors say.

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