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NDSU Study Finds Magazine Type, Gender Affect How Health News is Reported

Fargo, N.D. – A new study by a North Dakota State University faculty member and alumnus found health magazines are more likely than general popular culture magazines to use powerless language, or language that lacks certainty or directness, when reporting new health information.

The research was conducted by Stephenson Beck, assistant professor of communication, and Ashley Fandrich, who earned a master’s degree in communication from NDSU in 2010. The study was part of Fandrich’s master’s thesis under Beck’s direction.

The paper, “Powerless Language in Health Media: The Influence of Biological Sex and Magazine Type on Health Language,” was published in the January-March 2012 Communication Studies
While uncertain language is considered less credible in many contexts, past research on written communication indicates it is important in science and health reporting because it improves accuracy by acknowledging the limitations of new data, Beck and Fandrich wrote.

According to the study, media is the most popular source of new health information, but people are sometimes skeptical of news reports because they hear contradictory messages. “News reports focus on the exciting aspect of the news story, but neglect the details that properly frame it,” Beck said. “We found that magazines devoted to health issues are more willing to include the necessary qualifiers to make the report accurate, whereas more popular magazines do not provide this information.”

For the study, Beck and Fandrich reviewed 141 health articles from health or general popular culture magazines, published between October 2008 and September 2009, that specifically targeted a male or female audience. Each article was broken into thought units or statements that could stand alone as a complete thought. Words and phrases that moderated a statement, phrases or punctuation that caused pauses and tag questions were identified as powerless language.

Frequency of powerless language based on author sex and topic focus
Female author                                
 Health focus   General focus        
  13.3%                7.7%                                         
Male author
 Health focus   General focus
  6.8%                  3.4%  

Frequency of powerless language based on audience sex and topic focus
Female audience                             
 Health focus    General focus         
  12%                       8.4%                                     
Male audience
 Health focus    General focus
  8.9%                      3.9%

Other findings in the study related to the gender of the writer and the target audience. The researchers found female authors are more likely to use powerless language. “Past research suggested that females used more powerless language when talking to females, and more powerful language when talking to males,” Beck said. “We did not find this to be the case, at least in terms of written media. Female authors used the same frequency of powerless language for both male and female audiences.” The study also found that female-targeted magazines tend to use more powerless language than male-targeted magazines.

Frequency of powerless language based on author and audience sex
Female author                                               
Female audience   Male audience         
  10.3%                         10.4%                                                     
Male author
Female audience   Male audience
   6.3%                          5.6%

The researchers noted that 91 percent of the content they reviewed included powerful language or language that is direct and conveys certainty.  “Even though powerless language made up a small portion of the data, this should not be interpreted to mean that it was less influential than powerful language,” the researchers wrote. “In fact, quite the opposite might be true. Communication that is rare may be influential, since it deviates from the norm.”

Overall, the study found female authors and health-focused magazines used more powerless language than male authors and general magazines and that powerless language was directed toward female audience more often than male audiences.

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