Physician-assisted suicide (PAS) is a controversial and important social issue, yet it is not well understood by the US public. This is problematic, for previous research shows public opinion for legalizing PAS has grown more approving in recent decades. News salience and positive portrayals of the issue in news coverage have also increased. Despite increased positive opinion and news discussion, however, few members of the public have a full understanding of PAS. The basic purpose of this study was to examine how PAS is presented in news coverage and understood by members of the public. Specifically, the study examined people’s opinions of PAS to discover if their personal characteristics and/or characteristics of PAS news coverage predicted those opinions. As such, the study examined agenda-setting and framing as they occur in (a) the news media, (b) the public, and (c) external sources.
To achieve these objectives, the study was divided into two method phases. The first method phase was a content analysis of 43 press releases, 198 newspaper stories, and 38 news Web site and Weblog postings from June 2005 to June 2009 to determine their level of salience and frames for PAS. PAS was not especially salient in news coverage and press releases during the time of study, although there were peaks in time when the issue did become salient. Further, the media types studied here (press releases, newspapers, and news Web sites and Weblogs) each used the legal frame most often to describe PAS and there was no significant difference in the overall frames the media types used to discuss the issue.
The second method phase was a survey of 452 faculty and staff members at Bowling Green State University (a response rate of 17.01%) regarding their salience, frames, and opinions for PAS. Respondents overall had a slightly positive opinion of PAS, and these opinions could be explained by respondents’ marital status (non-married respondents had more negative opinions than married respondents), race (non-White respondents had more negative opinions than White respondents), support for abortion (increased support for abortion predicted more positive opinions of PAS), health status (better health predicted more negative opinions of PAS), personal salience for PAS (increased salience predicted more positive opinions of PAS), personal interest in PAS as a news item (increase interest predicted more positive opinions of PAS), and personal frame for PAS (respondents who used a personal autonomy frame had more positive opinions than respondents who used any other personal frame). Further, respondents did not consider PAS to be especially personally salient, and overwhelmingly used a personal autonomy frame when considering the issue.
This study is among very few in communication research to have examined, at once, agenda-setting and framing as they occur in the media, the public, and external sources. The results contradict previous research that has found media agenda-setting and media framing predict people’s opinions of social issues. Respondents’ opinions of PAS were predicted by their personal salience and personal frames, but not by the salience and frames utilized by the news sources they use to find information about PAS. In the case of a highly controversial, highly personal issue like PAS, it is possible people are less affected by the news media than they would be with more established social issues. It is also possible that low news attention to PAS minimizes the effects that could occur from exposure to news content. This study suggests that news media effects are contingent on audience members’ own personal qualities and experiences, and on the attention given to specific issues by the news media.