Abstract: Framing the Communication of Online Health Stigma: A Multi-Malady Comparison

◆ Julius Matthew Riles, University of Missouri
◆ Warren Davis, University of Missouri

Using Clarke and Everest’s (2006) health frames typology (medical [i.e., illness is product of genetics], environmental [i.e., illness is result of structural elements of one’s environment], and lifestyle [i.e., illness is result of behavioral choices]), prior research demonstrates an influence of culpability framing on news consumers’ perceptions about illness, illness interventions, and those managing illness (e.g., Riles, Sangalang, Hurley, & Tewksbury, 2015). Framing research of this sort has typically focused on the effect of frames on a particular health context (e.g., cancer). Questions remain regarding the generalizability of the influence of such news framing patterns. Various health conditions are known to have disparate connotations with regard to public perceptions about living conditions, onset, culpability, and prognosis (e.g., Lau, Wang, Lau, & Yai, 2014). It is necessary to examine how three health frames which are overwhelmingly represented in health news (Hurley, Riles, & Sangalang, 2014) could be influencing perceptions about illness, and those managing illness, in a number of disparate health contexts. Specifically, we explore the nature of health frame influence as it relates to news reports regarding alcohol addiction, obesity, and cancer. These illnesses represent the three most prominent health concerns for Americans (Gallup, 2015) that also vary in terms of how they relate to four chief cues for stigma communication (i.e., label, mark, danger, responsibility; Smith, 2007). Each of these health conditions could conceivably be labeled. Obesity is a condition relatively more associated with a mark (e.g., body size). Alcoholism is a condition relatively more associated with being a danger to others. Cancer – associated less with marks and danger – serves as a comparison to our other health conditions and to replicate previous research findings. Clarke and Everest’s (2006) frames are employed notably as a manipulation of the responsibility stigma cue.

In a 3 (frame: medical, environmental, lifestyle) X 3 (health condition: obesity, alcoholism, cancer) experimental design, the effect of news exposure is examined via the theoretical framework of the stereotype content model (i.e., warmth and competence perceptions about those managing illness) Additionally, outcomes related to compassion for victims, and advocacy for public interventions are explored. News articles for each health condition were created to be functionally equivalent within the respective frame condition. Pre-testing revealed support for this correspondence. Findings from a Qualtrics panel reveal a number of important ways in which Clarke and Everest’s (2006) frames influence perceptions regarding these health conditions, as well as those managing them, in both unique and uniform ways. This research reveals the necessity for journalists to be increasingly vigilant and strategic about how illness is presented on these platforms, given the perceptual ramifications oriented toward those managing health concerns. Further implications for framing research and health news production are discussed.