My role


Looking for the male in the Mail

With the average newspaper today containing fewer news stories and more features, that ought to mean more health articles. It does, says David Brill. But few of them are aimed at men. He reports on the analysis he did of one of the nation's most health-concious papers the Daily Mail.


David BrillI know three things. I know that I'm supposed to examine my testicles in the shower every now and then. I know that cranberry juice is good for my prostate, although I'm not sure exactly where that is or what it does, and I also know that high cholesterol is a bad thing. Why, as a young, active, well-read man, is this the extent of my knowledge of men's health?

The newspapers are full of Herceptin, IVF and HRT. Soaring abortion rates and teenage pregnancies make for regular headline material. Yet statistics suggest that men have worse health than women. The average man in the UK is more likely to smoke, be obese, and to drink above the recommended alcohol intake than the average woman. He is three times more likely to commit suicide than his female counterpart, and can expect to die five years younger.

Faced with such gloomy figures, one might expect men's health to receive more coverage than women's.

But a study of The Daily Mail's health pages reveals a different picture.

The newspaper devotes significant coverage to health-related topics, and carries a dedicated weekly section. With such a large volume of articles, it was a natural candidate for a postgraduate research project to investigate the balance between coverage of men's and women's health issues.

Rag outTaking a yearly snapshot (mid-June to mid-July), around 900 health articles were published in the newspaper between 2001 and 2006. While the majority of these did not relate to either gender in particular, some 34% dealt specifically with women's health, compared to around 8% for men's health. Furthermore, men's health stories were, on average, three pages further back in the newspaper than women's.

'I don't think that men get the attention they deserve on the health pages,' believes Barbara Lantin, a freelance health writer who in 2006 was named Patient's Association Health Journalist of the Year. 'A lot of stories are female-focused and men's health seems to be rather marginalised.'

This is a sentiment apparently shared by many journalists, yet the issue of gender bias within media health coverage remains largely unexplored from an academic perspective.

But are journalists to blame for this discrepancy? Do men actually want to read about their health? Men under the age of 45 make half as many visits to their GP as women. Department of Health figures show that thirteen times as many women as men participated in the first year of the National Chlamydia Screening Programme, despite the disease being equally prevalent in both sexes. Perhaps men are simply less interested in health issues than women.

'I think the perception is that the readership of health pages is female, and that wives, partners or mothers are the ones that tell their men-folk to go off and do healthy things,' explains Lantin.

'I suppose therefore that if you run men's health stories you might expect it to be the women that read them and urge the men to look after their own health.'

This sentiment appears to be supported by my study of The Daily Mail. In 2002, the paper featured a four-page special on men's health. Yet the target readership of this section becomes obvious from the headline on a full-page article: "MOT your man: 15 health questions every woman should ask — it might save your partner's life."

The coverage of men's health in the national press is likely to be a changing picture. No obvious patterns emerged over the six-year study period, but Peter Baker, a former journalist and the director of the Men's Health Forum — a charity that aims to improve awareness of men's health issues — thinks that men's health could be a subject in decline.

'Before the mid 1980s, when glossy men's magazines came out, there was not much men's health coverage,' he explains. 'It probably peaked around ten years ago, with the arrival of Viagra. Back then, it was quite new and there was an increasing demand for it. It's not as new and sexy now. Publishers realised that sales were in writing about beer and sex, not health.

'One of the crucial issue is that men just don't like asking for help about anything, or to be seen not to know the answer. And that includes health. I think that broadly speaking, men are much more interested than we would imagine, but are just more private about it. I think newspapers are letting their readers down by not covering these issues more seriously and more substantially,' Baker concludes.

No single paper can be considered representative of the whole national press, yet it is likely that The Daily Mail reflects a wider trend, where men's health is given less priority than women's. But surely it is just a matter of time until men demand to know more about their wellbeing. Maybe one day testicular cancer will grab the headlines, and I might just find out what my prostate does after all.

  • David Brill is Assistant Editor of Nature Clinical Practice Cardiovascular Medicine. An edited version of this article first appeared in Press Gazette.

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