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Media focuses on positives in covering cancer, study finds

March 19, 2010
Courtesy of JAMA/Archives Journals
and World Science staff

News re­ports about can­cer may be de­press­ing enough as they are. But a study has found that ac­tu­al­ly, news­pa­per and mag­a­zine ar­ti­cles on can­cer seem to fo­cus on good news more than the facts war­rant.

De­spite fre­quent com­plaints that the me­dia puts out too many scare sto­ries, the au­thors of the study say that with can­cer, the prob­lem may be the op­po­site: a per­sist­ently rose-tinted pic­ture may be de­priv­ing can­cer pa­tients of needed in­forma­t­ion, such as about end-of-life care op­tions.

A study has found that news­pa­per and mag­a­zine ar­ti­cles on can­cer seem to fo­cus on good news more than the facts war­rant.


Al­most no me­dia re­ports men­tion such op­tions, known as pal­li­a­tive or hos­pice care, they re­marked. That’s a ques­tion­a­ble prac­tice, they said, con­sid­er­ing that about half of those di­ag­nosed with can­cer die of the dis­ease or re­lat­ed com­plica­t­ions.

An es­ti­mat­ed one in two men and one in three wom­en are di­ag­nosed with can­cer at some point, ac­cord­ing to their re­port, to ap­pear in the March 22 is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Ar­chives of In­ter­nal Med­i­cine. More than half a mil­lion Amer­i­cans are ex­pected to die of can­cer eve­ry year, they added.

The au­thors, Jes­si­ca Fish­man and col­leagues at the Uni­vers­ity of Penn­syl­va­nia, Phil­a­del­phia, an­a­lyzed can­cer news re­porting from 2005 to 2007 in eight large U.S. news­pa­pers and five na­tional mag­a­zines. Of 2,228 can­cer-re­lat­ed ar­ti­cles that ap­peared, a ran­dom sam­ple of 436 was se­lected, about 72 per­cent of these from news­pa­pers. Trained coders meas­ured the pro­por­tion of ar­ti­cles de­vot­ed to var­i­ous can­cer-re­lat­ed top­ics.

The ar­ti­cles were most likely to fo­cus on breast can­cer (35.1 per­cent) or pros­tate can­cer (14.9 per­cent), the au­thors said. Twen­ty per­cent dis­cussed can­cer in gen­er­al. About 32.1 per­cent fo­cused on peo­ple sur­viv­ing or be­ing cured, but just 7.6 per­cent on pa­tients dy­ing or hav­ing died.

“It is sur­pris­ing that few ar­ti­cles dis­cuss death and dy­ing con­sid­er­ing that half of all pa­tients di­ag­nosed as hav­ing can­cer will not sur­vive,” the au­thors wrote. “The find­ings are al­so sur­pris­ing giv­en that sci­en­tists, me­dia crit­ics and the lay pub­lic re­peat­edly crit­i­cize the news for fo­cusing on death.” 

Only 13.1 per­cent of ar­ti­cles re­ported that ag­gres­sive can­cer treat­ments can fail to ex­tend life or cure the dis­ease, or that some can­cers are in­cur­a­ble, while about 30 per­cent men­tioned ad­verse events as­so­ci­at­ed with can­cer treat­ments, such as nau­sea, pain or hair loss.

There were no sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences be­tween mag­a­zines and news­pa­pers in re­gards to any of these fac­tors, the au­thors said.

“How of­ten should the news me­dia dis­cuss treat­ment fail­ure, ad­verse events, end-of-life care and death and dy­ing? Al­though there is no quanti­fi­able an­swer, the same educa­t­ional goals that ide­ally drive news cov­er­age of can­cer treat­ment and sur­viv­al should al­so com­pel news or­gan­iz­a­tions to ad­dress these top­ics,” the re­port con­clud­ed.


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News reports about cancer may be depressing enough as they are. But a study has found that actually, newspaper and magazine articles on cancer seem to focus on good news more than the facts warrant. Despite frequent criticisms of the media for focusing on scare stories, the authors of the study say that with cancer, the problem may be the opposite: a persistently rose-tinted picture may be depriving patients of needed information, such as about end-of-life care options. Almost no media reports mention such options, known as palliative or hospice care, they remarked. That’s a questionable practice, they said, considering that about half of those diagnosed with cancer die of the disease or related complications. An estimated one in two men and one in three women are diagnosed with cancer at some point, according to their report, to appear in the March 22 issue of the research journal Archives of Internal Medicine. More than half a million Americans are expected to die of cancer every year, they added. The authors, Jessica Fishman and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, analyzed cancer news reporting from 2005 to 2007 in eight large U.S. newspapers and five national magazines. Of 2,228 cancer-related articles that appeared, a random sample of 436 was selected, about 72 percent of these from newspapers. Trained coders measured the proportion of articles devoted to various cancer-related topics. The articles were most likely to focus on breast cancer (35.1 percent) or prostate cancer (14.9 percent), the authors said. Twenty percent discussed cancer in general. About 32.1 percent focused on people surviving or being cured, but just 7.6 percent focused on patients dying or having died. “It is surprising that few articles discuss death and dying considering that half of all patients diagnosed as having cancer will not survive,” the authors wrote. “The findings are also surprising given that scientists, media critics and the lay public repeatedly criticize the news for focusing on death.” Only 13.1 percent of articles reported that aggressive cancer treatments can fail to extend life or cure the disease, or that some cancers are incurable, while about 30 percent mentioned adverse events associated with cancer treatments, such as nausea, pain or hair loss. There were no significant differences between magazines and newspapers in regards to any of these factors, the authors said. “How often should the news media discuss treatment failure, adverse events, end-of-life care and death and dying? Although there is no quantifiable answer, the same educational goals that ideally drive news coverage of cancer treatment and survival should also compel news organizations to address these topics,” the report concluded.