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Media making inroads on reporting head injuries: study

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There has been a dramatic improvement in some news reporting on the severity and impact of concussions and serious brain injuries in hockey but journalists shouldn't get carried away patting themselves on the back, according to a study of coverage in four North American newspapers.

Michael Cusimano, a neurosurgeon at Toronto's St. Michael's Hospital, says in a study of selected news coverage over the past 25 years that there's plenty of room for improvement regarding the print media's coverage of the issue.

"The accuracy of medical information is pretty good, let's say a B-plus or A-minus," Cusimano said. "In terms of being action oriented towards making the game safer, I hold people to a higher standard and I would give a C-plus or a B-minus.

"We could do much better but I think we're moving up. In the past I'd say we were closer to an F but now we're taking baby steps forward, which is encouraging."

Cusimano's study, which is published in the peer-reviewed, open-access medical journal PLOS ONE, examined the coverage of sports-related traumatic brain injuries in the Toronto Star, Vancouver Sun, New York Times and Chicago Tribune. The papers were selected to provide Canada-U.S. content and cover east and west areas while encompassing Original Six cities as well as expansion-era NHL locales.

The study examined if reporting themes changed over time and specifically looked at a total of 541 newspaper articles published between 1998-2000 and 2009-2011. The articles were retrieved using the ProQuest database, an online periodical index administered by the Cambridge Information Group.

Cusimano's study examines only what has been reported in the four newspapers, and not how or if public opinion of head injuries in hockey has changed over time. But he said newspapers can be important tools in educating the public about head trauma.

"The media can play a critically important role in this whole story that's been playing out these many years," he said. "One thing this study highlights is the important role the media and personalities in the media can play in making the sport safer and actually strengthening the sport for future generations."

The study found the Canadian papers discussed hockey aggression more in recent reports and over time the role of equipment shifted from protecting to potentially becoming a potential cause of injury. More recently, according to the study, stories dealt more with the severity and personal impact of head injuries and violence.

By comparison, American papers spoke less frequently about aggression contributing to head injuries in hockey.

"In both Canada and the United States, we see accurate reporting of the medical side of things more frequently," Cusimano said. "But there is still the sense, in both media to a certain extent, that aggression and violence are part of the sport.

"Early we saw things almost to the point where promoting aggression as a way to incite interest. You see that a little bit more in the U.S., but certainly in Canada. This recent shift towards a condemnation of needless aggression and violence like in staged fights and that kind of thing, we see that a little bit more and there's a shift there."

Cusimano said this was particularly evident following Canada's win over the United States in the 2010 Olympic gold-medal game in Vancouver.

"After the last Olympics ... the Toronto Star said: 'Canadians were just treated to some amazing hockey at the Olympics and nowhere was fighting or head-hunting seen. The game can survive and thrive without it,' " he said. "That's pretty telling to come from Canada.

"I think there's a recognition in the Canadian media to almost preserve hockey, to keep it going and prevent it from, it might be extreme to say, becoming extinct. There's a desire to keep it in a way that preserves the excitement but also addresses the issue of keeping youth safe playing the sport."

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 18, 2013 D4

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