Cancer media coverage: realistic or overly optimistic?

March 22, 2010 by  
Filed under CANCER

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Are we viewing cancer through rose-colored glasses? Is the media giving us a rather overly optimistic picture of cancer?

Cancer is a hot topic nowadays. Statistics indicate that 1 in 2 men and 1 in 3 women will be diagnosed with cancer during their lifetime. Everybody knows at least 1 person diagnose with cancer. Strange and sad as it may sound, cancer has become so widespread that it has almost become a household word. Cancer, therefore, is a very timely topic to write about that would interest a lot of readers.

A group of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia looked at media coverage of cancer between 2005 and 2007by 8 major American newspapers. A total of 2,228 articles were retrieved and from these, a random subsample of 436 articles was analyzed based on the topics covered.

The analysis revealed that certain types of cancer get more attention than others

  • 35. 1% of articles focused on breast cancer
  • 14.9% focused on prostate cancer
  • 20% focused on cancer in general.

In terms of survival and death, the articles tended to focus more on the former than the latter.

  • 32.1% focused on survivorship
  • 7.6% focused on cancer victims who died
  • 2.3% focused on both survival and death.

The authors wrote:

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

Articles dealing with treatments also tended to focus on the positive side.

  • 13.1% of articles reported about incurable cancers as well as aggressive cancer treatments that fail to extend life or cure the disease
  • 30% mentioned about the side effects associated with cancer treatments, such as nausea, pain or hair loss.
  • 57.1 % discussed aggressive treatments exclusively
  • 0.5 % looked at end-of-life care for the terminally ill
  • 2.5 percent% discussed both aggressive treatments and end-of-life care

The authors believe that there is a knowledge gap among the public in terms of palliative care and hospice facilities which the media need to cater to. Such information can help can help patients “make decisions that realistically reflect their prognosis and the risks and potential benefits of treatment.”

The authors concluded:

“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 media routinely report about aggressive treatment and survival presumably because cancer news coverage is relevant to a large portion of the population, and, for the same reason, similar attention should be devoted to the alternatives.”

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