Friday, January 7, 2011

The News, Cancer, and a Counter-Intuitive Result

It's a given -- we learn a lot about disease and illness from the media, either in the news, or from those annoying pharmaceutical commercials, or in entertainment programs.  Me, I get all my medical knowledge (and behavioral modeling) from House.

Cancer in particular gets lots of media attention, as it should given the number of people who suffer and die from the disease every year.  But is it accurate media attention?

This study suggests not, at least when it comes to the news.  Only the abstract is available (I bet Gregory House gets access for free).  But what's really interesting is not that the news media isn't as accurate as it could be -- surprise -- but the direction of that inaccuracy.  Stay with me here.  It's kinda sorta fascinating.

The content analysis of cancer coverage by eight newspapers and five magazines reaches a counter-intuitive conclusion.  News reports often discuss aggressive treatment and survival, according to the study, but rarely touch on the bad news.  All that emphasis is mine because I love doing it.  Think about it.  How's this result for turning the traditional criticism of journalism on its ear?  We (the royal we, as in journalists) focus too much on the bad, or so goes the criticism by just about everyone on the planet who isn't a journalist, but according to this study, the news "may give patients an inappropriately optimistic view of cancer treatment, outcomes, and prognosis."

Wow.  Journalists optimistic?  Something's deeply wrong here.

Unfortunately we can't judge the quality of the research, given all we have a measly abstract.  And when non-media scholars attempt a content analysis, they often screw the pooch -- as in no inter-coder reliabilities, no cleanly drawn categories, no sense of the difficulties of analyzing a text or constructing units of measurement.  Sure, it's The Archives of Internal Medicine, a pretty damn good medical journal, but too often medical folks conduct really bad behavioral research.  For them, a media study can seem like slumming it.  That attitude often shows in the work.

But if we assume for the moment the study was done halfway well, then this result does surprise. Clearly someone in journalism is asleep at the switch.  Get back to that bad news!


Richard said...

While I fully appreciate your wry comments about this study, I don't see the same divergence from the journalistic norm that you do. Actually, what I hear repeatedly about the Atlanta media is that they report bad news relentlessly (deadly auto wrecks, shootings, robery, home invasions and the like). Of course, the reason they do so is because people actually find the horrorible fascinating, and can't look away in real life, so emulate that behavior in their TV watching habits -- therefore the media natually broadcasts what will increase their viewership (or readership).
I don't see the findings in this study to be in conflict with the idea that journalictic outlets publish what their audience wants. It's not that jounalists are not aware of the BAD NEWS in cancer treatments, it's just that they tend to publish what the public wants to read/see/hear -- and miserable outcomes from diseases that ravage the body (and may someday ravage their own) do not rank high on the public's preference list.

Hollander said...

Typically journalists report the bad because that's not the norm. A thousand planes can land safely and it's not news, but when one crashes -- that's news. Same is true for crime, or when someone does something awful, especially when you'd expect otherwise given their position in society. In other words, a priest who abuses a kid is bigger news than a plumber who does the same thing.

But I agree, you're on to something, especially cancer. One very popular type of story concerning illness and disease is the survivor story, the uplifting story, the inspirational story. The compelling story that ends badly -- death -- not so often seen.