The need for meaningful health communications: Female audience interpretation analysis of mass media health messages

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Mass Communications


Elizabeth L. Toth


Women's health, Communications, Audience, Mass media, Health messages

Subject Categories

Mass Communication


This is a feminist, cultural interpretation analysis that explored how women from different backgrounds made meaning of mass media health messages. Hall's encoding- decoding model and Grunig's situational theory of publics serve as context for this study. Four research questions are answered through focus groups and in-depth interviews: (1) What are primary health concerns? (2) What sources of information do women use? (3) How do they "read" or interpret mass media health messages? (4) What influences their interpretations? The women were asked to choose a main health concern of theirs, which guided part of the discussions. To note other patterns one health issue currently in the mass media today--breast cancer--was also given special emphasis. The focus groups were held first, and comprised mothers from low income neighborhoods; heterosexual African American professionals; heterosexual college students of color; European American heterosexual college students; and lesbian European American graduate students and working class women. The interviews then filled some gaps, with European Americans who were middle-class and educated, Latina women at poverty level and an educated Korean woman. Findings reveal few differences between interpretations of messages about primary health concerns and about breast cancer. In general, women express a lack of concern about health, use personal experiences as frameworks for meaning, combine media with professional information sources, and use negotiated readings for messages. In addition, a grounded theory emerged as to the factors that play a role in how women make meaning of health messages. Women engage in conscious thought about how health messages related to everyday life, self-identity, opinions of the media, sense of how important health is, and cognitions about the message itself. More sporadically, the women consider society, the medical establishment, cultural and family beliefs, and previous knowledge in order to make sense of messages. Technological access is a practical barrier for some participants. Public relations practitioners and campaign planners can use findings to better tailor health messages to the specific needs and lifestyles of different women.


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