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Learn tested communication strategies for influencing the media themselves, in order to increase the favorability of local media coverage.


  • What is the media's perspective on community issues?

  • How does the media talk about issues?

  • How do you change the media’s perspective on community issues?

  • How do you want the media to look at community issues?

  • How do you change the presentation of your message?

  • What is creative epidemiology?

  • What is a media bite?

What is the media's perspective on community issues?

When people talk about community issues, they often talk about how individuals need to change their lifestyles to make things better for themselves. It's easy to say, "Well, you should've done this instead..."

For example, consider the tragedy of an American woman, in a California city. As she was walking to her car from a public transportation stop, she was kidnapped, stuffed into the trunk of her own car by her kidnappers, who later robbed, raped, and murdered her. Although the woman's brutal assault and murder received intense media coverage and people cried out for increased public safety, the general media focus was on the drama of the crime.

The conditions that led up to the woman's attack and the issues of community-wide safety and personal well-being were ignored. Instead, the media provided "tips" on how to "be safe" as a user of public transportation or parking lots.

It's easy to think that somehow people who suffer didn't do enough to keep themselves safe or healthy. The media have the tendency to present, or frame, health and community issues as individual rather than social problems.

In effective media advocacy, health and community advocates not only reframe news stories to show the influence that politics, economics, health policy and stereotyping have on health and community issues, but also work with media representatives to help them understand those issues more clearly and present them more straightforwardly. Their job is to show the media – and, through them, the public and decision makers – that health and community development problems can only be solved by community effort.

How does the media talk about issues?

We've discussed the importance of understanding the media before approaching them. It's also important to be aware of how news is reported.

Issues are presented, or "framed", by turning facts, scientific knowledge, and analysis into symbols, pictures, sounds, and labels. For example, suppose you are a public health advocate. You know that cigarette smoking is linked to asthma in children who live around second-hand smoke. Instead of writing a story that gives only the statistics - e.g. how many new cases of childhood asthma are reported - you could present a picture of an adult trying to hand a baby a lit cigarette to illustrate the dangers of secondhand smoke.

Public opinions on health and community issues are greatly influenced by strong symbols and labels that capture a widely held (and supposedly correct) attitude. For example, the Beef Producers of America have combated recent publicity on links between heart disease and high cholesterol food such as red meat by broadcasting commercials that show delicious meat dishes being prepared, with famous cowboy music in the background and a narrator talking about the nutritional benefits of red meat. Here, the beef producers play up the American love of the cowboy and its association with cattle ranching and beef eating.

News sources often use positive images and labels to highlight viewpoints they support and negative images and labels to derogate view points they oppose. For example, the lawyers of O.J. Simpson used his record-setting football statistics and reputation as a "nice guy" to portray him in a positive light during his murder trial, while the prosecution used his history of wife beating to portray him as a raging animal capable of murderous behavior.

How do you change the media’s perspective on community issues?

As we’ve implied, changing the media’s perspective on health and community issues really involves two different, though closely related, activities. One is to reframe your message to convey the ideas you want the media and the public to understand and act on. The other is to work directly with reporters, editors, producers, and others in the media to help them understand the complexities of the issues, and to present them clearly without oversimplifying them. Let’s examine working directly with the media first.

Journalists and media people in general are often seen as biased, but the opposite is true more often than not. Most good journalists, regardless of the medium they work in, are committed to the truth, and to bringing that truth to the public. In order to do this, they typically try to use examples that most people will understand and identify with.

The audience may glaze over at a discussion of poverty, for instance, but it will pay attention to and empathize with the struggles of a distinct individual. A story about creating opportunity for people in poverty, therefore, whether in print or on radio or TV, is likely to focus on, or at least to start with, an individual in that situation. Especially on TV, where everything happens in two minutes or less, the story may never get beyond that individual to explore the role the community plays in his being poor, and the ways in which the problem might be addressed.

Sometimes, the media change their approach to an issue because it plays out in ways that can’t be ignored. Media coverage of both the American civil rights movement and the ant-apartheid struggle in South Africa changed markedly as it became clear which side held the moral high ground.  Images of police brutality in Alabama, Mississippi, and Soweto helped to convince the world that both movements were in fact broad-based and highly moral struggles for justice and human rights, rather than the protests of a few radicals and “outside agitators,” a favorite term of segregationists in the American South.

Other sections in this chapter discuss how to establish relationships with people in the media.  In addition to generally making your job as an advocate easier, those relationships put you in a position to explain your issue to reporters and other influential media people, and to thus change the way they approach it.

Guidelines for this are in many ways similar to those for establishing the relationship in the first place:

  • Show yourself to be a trustworthy, knowledgeable, and accurate source of information. If your media contacts know that they can believe what you say – that you don’t exaggerate or slant what you tell them, and that your tips pay off – they’ll trust your explanation of your issue.
  • Guide the media to stories that, while focusing on individuals, highlight the underlying causes of the issue and suggest what might be done to change them.

A story about a single parent struggling to get and keep a job, for instance, should show that affordable child care and transportation may be as necessary as job skills in her search.  For someone making a relatively low wage, the cost of child care might represent half her salary or more, leaving too little to provide food and shelter for her family.  By the same token, if she can’t get to work reliably – if she has a car that keeps breaking down, or if there’s no public transportation – she‘s not going to be able to keep a job.  When the public looks at the issue, they often don’t think about those aspects of the situation.  The media, if they understand and present the realities of a single parent’s plight, can help create public support for child care and transportation subsidies as well as job training and placement.

  • Try to arrange opportunities for the media to see the actual conditions, services, organization(s), etc. that you’re advocating for. Experiences often speak a great deal louder and more convincingly than words.
  • Be reasonable. Don’t expect that one conversation or visit is necessarily going to change the way your issue is presented. Above all, don’t get angry or accusatory – that’s usually a way to make sure you don’t get what you want.
  • Keep at it, even after you’ve succeeded.  The memories of both the media and the public are short.  If you don’t keep pushing the proper presentation of your issue, it’s likely that it will fade, and you’ll be right back where you started.

How do you want the media to look at community issues?

Health and community advocates frame and reframe their issues in hopes that a new and improved presentation of the issue will change existing attitudes about public health.

How you present your issues and your opponent's issues can determine whether you win or lose an advocacy campaign. As you work with the media, you'll discover that an advocate's job is to claim the most positive symbols or labels to promote the advocate's view, and use the most negative symbols or labels to represent the opposition's views.

How can you use symbols and themes to stir up the passions and emotions of those who don't already support your efforts? Here are examples of symbols that people feel strongly about, which are frequently used by businesses, politicians, non-profit organizations, and the media.

Symbols and themes viewed positively by the general public:

  • Fairness
  • Hard work
  • Family
  • Freedom
  • Financial security
  • Personal safety
  • Good health
  • Church
  • Education
  • The American flag
  • Increased or new opportunities
  • Boldness or initiative
  • Patriotism (as contrasted with nationalism)

Symbols and themes viewed negatively by the general public:

  • Unfairness or selfishness
  • Laziness or irresponsibility
  • Financial or governmental oppression
  • Favoritism
  • Deceit
  • Violent or abusive behavior
  • Lack of self-control
  • Cheating
  • Taking advantage of others

Successful media campaigns use the most positive symbols available. Choosing the right symbols and using those images effectively and truthfully can strengthen community support for issues important to you. You may even bring new believers into your coalition.

On the other hand, choosing the wrong symbols can hurt your media image, or erode the support you've previously enjoyed by unknowingly offending people. For example, an organization that voices its opposition to the government's policies in a foreign country by burning the American flag may lose support among war veterans and other groups who hold the flag as a sacred symbol of freedom.

Remember, when choosing symbols:

  • Choose symbols distinct from those of your opposition
  • Select symbols that people don't already associate with another product or organization
  • Pick symbols that aren't ambiguous or confusing. A good way to test if the symbols you've chosen convey the right message is to ask someone not familiar with your organization to interpret what your symbols mean to them.
  • Be careful not to select images or symbols that might offend or alienate certain groups
  • Keep in mind that you need to speak and behave in a way consistent with the messages that your symbols communicate. This shows you are serious about your issues and the values your symbols convey. For example, if you are a health advocate working to reduce teenage tobacco use, quit smoking if you're a smoker.
  • Select symbols that are emotionally charged but positive. You want to optimize the positive associations and energy carried in your image.
  • Highlight the negative aspects of the symbols that you assign to your opponents, or the negative side of the symbols they've chosen for themselves
  • In order for symbols to work, you've got to back them up with arguments for social policy change that make sense. Your symbols should connect well with your arguments and help reframe the problem as a social one in which citizens work together for solutions.

How do you change the presentation of your message?

One of the most important goals of media advocates is to change the way health issues are portrayed. The media tend to use individual stories to discuss an issue, so the impression that comes across is often one of "blaming the victim."

The examples we provided at the beginning of this section are good illustrations of victims being blamed for their unfortunate situations. Another example would be a single, alcoholic mother who "simply needs to use greater will power to kick her habit."

Media advocacy tries to shift the focus from the individual to a wider, society-based view. Advocates ask, "How can we make our town safer so that rapes aren't ever committed?" or, "What can all of us do to reduce the stress on single mothers and to reduce alcoholism in our community?"

Unfortunately, changing public attitudes from an individual focus to a focus on the social environment is often difficult. Americans have strong beliefs in the power of the individual to change his own life, regardless of what's going on in the environment, so it's hard for them to assume that all of us can take some responsibility for a problem and its solution. But people can change their minds!

Suggestions to help focus attention on the community at large include:

  • When you talk to the media, frequently return to and focus on basic themes, such as the importance of environment in determining public health and social conditions. For example, you might remind journalists that social class is the most important factor in determining personal health (Haan, Kaplan, and Syme, 1989).
  • Stress the need for community participation to change public health and social conditions.
  • Focus your recommendations on public policy, rather than on better personal health messages.
  • Don't overuse individual stories (e.g., "How Jane overcame her drug addiction"). There is a real place for such stories, and they can sometimes help gain public support for your initiative. However, they also send the message that health is an individual problem, not a social one.
  • State your point of view as clearly and concisely as possible, but be prepared to respond to strong arguments made for the other side of the debate. After you have successfully deflected criticism, you can return to your well-explained, heartfelt point of view.

Framing and reframing issues provide a landscape for all the scientific facts and anecdotal evidence you have that support the validity of your issues; they help your story come alive. Think of the different media campaigns related to health issues that have, through the years, mobilized thousands of people behind an issue.

Example: The abortion debate

Public health advocates in favor of abortion rights have promoted their viewpoint using symbols such as "the right to choose" and a woman's right to privacy.
Opponents in the anti-abortion movement have represented abortion as "baby killing" and as "murder of unborn children."
People on both sides of the issue have chosen effective, highly emotional symbols: pro-choice activists have chosen "freedom" and "personal privacy"; and right-to-lifers have chosen "murder". Each of these symbols elicits deep emotions and powerful images because we all have strong opinions about freedom, the right to privacy, and murder.

Example: Tobacco use

Male smokers are portrayed as strong and outdoorsy men who enjoy a good smoke.
Female smokers are portrayed as thin stylish women who buy cigarettes to accessorize their dresses.
Obviously, the tobacco industry taps into the American obsession with beauty, style, and sex roles to convince the public to purchase its products. By presenting its product with beautiful and healthy models, the industry seeks to draw attention away from the truly harmful effects of prolonged tobacco use.

Tobacco producers have tried to shake loose support for public health initiatives by portraying health advocates as people who would limit a smoker's constitutional right to light up a cigarette. Here, the tobacco industry uses the highly cherished American right to privacy and freedom of choice, without the government snooping around to restrict use of its product.

Public health advocates, on the other hand, frame the use of tobacco products as a health risk for heart disease, lung diseases, oral cancer, and low birthweight babies. They also claim tobacco is a gateway drug to other drugs such as marijuana and hashish.

Here, the use of tobacco products is not presented simply as a matter of personal responsibility. It's an activity influenced by the seductive advertising of the tobacco industry and encouraged by the easy availability of cigarettes by minors.

In addition, public health advocates have gained widespread publicity with their claim that tobacco companies have "spiked" their products with more addictive substances, thus ensuring a consumer population. These reports have reframed addiction to tobacco products not as an individual problem, but as a situation created by greedy tobacco industry officials.

As you can see, advocates on different sides will have different points of view. You can have enormous influence, though, over how the media and general public perceive your issues. Framing and reframing can help give you that influence.

What is creative epidemiology?

In the middle of the public health debate is a huge mass of information, statistics, and numbers. How do you make that information easy to understand? In addition to using a specific news angles, it helps to make the content of the story real and vivid. Media advocates often use "creative epidemiology," a term coined by anti-tobacco activist Michael Daube, to make scientific and academic information more understandable for the media and general public.

Three types of creative epidemiology


Localization is presenting overwhelming statistics and numbers in such a way that the media and public in a particular community can easily relate to them. So many news stories describe variables in the millions and billions, e.g., "$16 million was cut from last year's $248 million budget," or "65,000 people a year die in traffic-related fatalities," concepts that lose their meaning when ordinary people are used to smaller, everyday figures like a $60 grocery bill or $600 a month for rent.

Localization illustrates a story's numbers in terms of how many people in a certain neighborhood or community are affected by a problem; it makes statistics human and local. For example, instead of telling the public that the United States spends 15% of its GNP on health care, tell members of the community that, on average, health care for each of them costs more than $6,000.00 a year.


Relativity compares the effects of one problem with those of another, usually more dramatic, problem. The Smoking Control Advocacy Resource Center presented the fact that 390,000 people die from smoking every year as "Imagine two fully loaded jumbo jets crashing every day, 365 days a year, with no survivors..." The image that comes across is much more powerful than the figure, "390,000 people die each year from smoking."

Public policy effects

Public policy effects illustrate the potential effects of public policies in debate. How many dollars will each American spend every day to cover the cost of the savings and loan bail-out? How many children's lives will be saved by mandating the use of baby seats in cars? How many lives will be lost to the increased health risks posed by revoking water safety regulations?

Whatever technique you use, your goal is to make statistics and numbers more understandable and meaningful so that your audience comprehends your message and supports your initiatives.

Media bites

With the hectic pace and stress of modern life, we rely on the bare facts provided by television, radio, and newspaper headlines to keep us in touch with the world. And the media, always thinking about that economic bottom line, can't afford to waste a lot of time on in-depth coverage of an issue; a full-length story on the evening news, after all, may be only 90 seconds long. Obviously, the time that health organizations have to get their message across will be short. That's why your information has to say a lot in a little bit of time.

Media bites are 10 to 15 second quotes or catchphrases that give the gist of a story and are used to grab the audience's attention. They contain both important information and well-known symbols meant to evoke strong emotion in a viewer, listener, or reader.

Pointers for creating media bites:

  • Keep your media bite as short as possible
  • Divide more complex ideas into several short sentences or phrases
  • You can use humor, but avoid being cute or too funny. You don't want to downplay the seriousness of your issue, but you do want to win the audience's sympathetic attention.
  • Rhymes, alliterations, or puns are familiar and friendly literary devices that connect easily with an audience
  • A reversal or satirical rephrasing of a well-known corporate slogan can deflate the novelty and popularity of your opposition's ads
  • Avoid being preachy, judgmental, or alarmist
  • Avoid songs, symbols and pictures that have lost their freshness and impact due to overuse. To get an idea of what kinds of symbols are being used these days, find out what "bites" your media sources, colleagues, and competitors use.

Construct several media bites that capture the essence of your media advocacy goals before you send out information packets to the media or show up for an interview. This way you come prepared with relevant, informative, and lively quotes that not only promote your viewpoint but that will probably escape an editor's cuts, and possibly make headlines.

In Summary

Just as in changing the perceptions of people in the media, you have to keep at it in reframing the issue as well. People in the media, like everyone else, change jobs, move on, relocate, retire – you can’t bank on the fact that once you’ve convinced someone, even someone influential, to present your issue in a given way, that that will keep happening. You have to pay attention to the framing of the issue all the time, even long after it appears that the media has truly understood it. As in all advocacy, once you turn your back on what you’ve built, it can fall down incredibly quickly.

Aimee Whitman

Online Resources

A Media Advocacy Intervention Linking Health Disparities and Food Insecurity is an article by Rock, McIntyre, Persaud, & Thomas published in the Journal of Health Education Research in 2011.

Media Advocacy Workbook is a ten-step comprehensive guide to media advocacy including how to use symbols successfully.

Time for a Creative Transformation of Epidemiology in the United States is an article published by Michael S. Lauer in 2012 in The Journal of the American Medical Association.  

5 Ways to Create Sound Bites the get you Quoted is an article from Mr. Media Training that discusses ways to make your sound bite memorable.

Print Resources

Altman, D., Balcazar, F., Fawcett, S., Seekins, T., & Young, J. (1994). Public health advocacy: Creating community change to improve health. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford Center for Research in Disease Prevention.

Goldman, K., & Zasloff, K. (1994, December). Tools of the trade: Media do's and don'ts. SOPHE News & Views, 6-7.

National Cancer Institute. (1988). Media strategies for smoking control: Guidelines. Bethesda, MD: Author.

Pertschuk, M., & Wilbur, P. (1991). Media advocacy: Reframing public debate. Washington, DC: The Benton Foundation.