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What to expect when you're expecting? Representations of birth in British newspapers

02 August 2014
15 min read
Volume 22 · Issue 8


Background: National newspapers are a powerful force in British society, often portraying childbirth as a moment of high drama. Yet no evidence to date has systematically collated the material on offer.

Objective: This descriptive study aimed to examine how childbirth is represented in British national newspapers.

Methods: Content analysis of women's first-person accounts of birth was carried out. Text was coded using material gleaned from a database search of 23 publications over 12 months (from 1 December 2011 to 30 November 2012). Publications included Daily Mail, Mirror, The Telegraph, The Guardian, The Sun and The Times.

Results: 61 codes emerged, including; fear, ordeal, pain, effective staff, malicious or poor care, intervention, humour, positive pain, relief, no choice, infection, no pain, mother's instinct.

Conclusions: A discrepancy exists between newspaper messages and the majority of births. Uptake of normal birth pathways arguably depends on midwives addressing this potential source of anxiety. Distorted risk perceptions may also affect the behaviour of health practitioners, managers and commissioners.

Stories of childbirth make for engaging reading in newspapers, but to what effect on the future mothers who pick them up? Public scepticism over the values driving Britain's mass media has intensified since the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics and recent phone hacking trials. Yet a pregnant reader is still likely to have relatively high confidence in the information carried in direct quotations that form women's personal narratives of labour (Gibson and Zillmann, 1993; Sundar, 1998).

Interest in advisory material on pregnancy and birth is underscored by the retail success of self-help books such as What to Expect When You're Expecting (Murkoff and Mazel, 1999), a volume published in 30 languages, selling more than 17 million copies. Newspapers are another ready source of information. But the experiences headlined in sales-driven publications inevitably bring more drama—whether tragedy or miracle—than the majority of pregnancies (Williams and Fahy, 2004; Bick, 2010). This non-representative information is a powerful source of anxiety for women approaching the pivotal life experience of giving birth (Ryding et al, 2007). Reports about relatively rare clinical problems can plant seeds of fear that readers might not have previously even been aware of (Beck, 1992). The NHS online tool, Behind the Headlines, attempts to interrogate media reports using the best available evidence (NHS Choices, 2014). However, it is impossible for every article to be illuminated in this way. Thus, in order for midwives to be truly ‘with woman’, it would help to have an understanding of the material on offer.

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