Cancer stories seem to make the news on a daily basis. For example, just today in the UK there are stories about a gene that could predispose non-smokers to lung cancer, how infertile men are at raised risk of prostate cancer, and how testing for the HPV virus during cervical screening doesn’t help pick up women who might go on to develop cervical cancer.
But it’s not just a case of “all publicity is good publicity.” Research published recently in Archives of Internal Medicine has shown that newspaper and magazine stories on cancer tend to focus on survival and aggressive treatments but steer clear of covering treatment failure, side effects of treatment, end of life care, and death.
The authors of this study looked at 436 500-word articles from top American newspapers and magazines, such as Chicago Tribune, New York Times, Newsweek, and Time. The 312 newspaper articles and 124 magazine pieces largely covered breast cancer (35.1%) and prostate cancer (14.9%), two of the most common types of cancer in the US.
Articles were more likely to focus on people who had survived or been cured of cancer than on people who had died of the disease (32.1% vs 7.6%). In fact, those articles that covered individual patients (173 articles; 216 individuals), more than three quarters covered success stories and only a fifth told the story of someone who had died of cancer.
Few articles (13.1%) pointed out that aggressive treatments such as chemotherapy can fail or that late stage cancer can be incurable. Moreover, less than a third highlighted the side effects associated with such treatments, like pain, hair loss, and nausea.
Only two articles (0.5%) exclusively covered palliative or hospice care for when treatment options had run out, whereas more than half (57.1%) instead focused solely on aggressive treatment.
Given that one in every two men and one in every three women in the US will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime, half of whom will die from their cancer or related complications, this optimistic skew in media reporting of cancer is somewhat misleading.
Cancer news coverage is known to affect the beliefs and behaviours of patients; for example, media coverage of mammography screening is known to increase the use of mammography in women. As such, “The tendency of the news to report on aggressive cancer treatments and survival but not on alternatives is also noteworthy given that unrealistic information may mislead the public about the trade-offs between attempts at heroic cures and hospice care,” say the authors.
Fishman, J., Ten Have, T., & Casarett, D. (2010). Cancer and the Media: How Does the News Report on Treatment and Outcomes? Archives of Internal Medicine, 170 (6), 515-518 DOI: 10.1001/archinternmed.2010.11