Unrealistic Media Reports
This is an unfortunate and familiar story. We see headlines that say something like: "Doctors announce revolutionary cancer treatment." or "New treatment for pancreatic cancer may be the cure." Understanding that the goal of news reports is to encourage us to buy the paper or listen to the story, this still always seems irresponsible and even cruel. All too often, I am asked by patients about something they (or someone whom they know who then excitedly called them) heard on the news which has completely raised unrealistic hopes and will almost certainly turn out to be not helpful. The truth, sadly, about progress in cancer treatment is that it is a tedious, methodical, frustratingly and heartbreakingly slow process.
Here is a good article about this from MedScape with my reminder to not believe most of what you read in the popular press:
They aggressively look for feel-good stories as a counterweight.
March 26, 2010 — "Portrayals of cancer care in the news media may give patients an inappropriately optimistic view of cancer treatments, outcomes, and prognosis," concludes an original investigation published in the March 22 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine.
"Unrealistic information may mislead the public about the trade-offs between attempts at heroic cures and hospice care," it adds. The most troubling aspect of this unrealistic news coverage about cancer is that it leads to unrealistic expectations from patients, notes an accompanying commentary.
"Our findings suggest there are a few missed opportunities," said lead author Jessica Fishman, PhD, from the Center for Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. News reports about cancer mostly discuss treatment successes, but not the risks and negative consequences of treatment, or alternatives such as end-of-life hospice or palliative care, she said in an interview.
"This slanted presentation may give the public an unrealistically optimistic expectation that cancer treatment will lead to more positive outcomes than many patients will experience in reality," she said. "The Lance Armstrong type of survival story doesn't reflect the reality faced by many patients," she added.
In addition, the news media are missing "an important part of cancer care" by not discussing end-of-life hospice and palliative care — "which has many proven benefits and is very underutilized," she explained.
Analysis of News Reports
Dr. Fishman and her team analyzed the reporting of cancer news in the United States by studying 436 articles that had appeared in 8 large-readership newspapers and 5 national magazines. "Very few news reports about cancer discuss death and dying," they note.
This is surprising, becuase half of all patients who are diagnosed with cancer will not survive, they add. It is also surprising that death from cancer is reported so infrequently, whereas deaths and other negative events are featured so prominently in news media.
"News often equates misfortune with significance, dedicating a disproportionately large share of coverage to mortality and other bad events," the researchers write, adding that "scientists, media critics, and the lay public repeatedly criticize the news for focusing on death."
Need for "Feel-Good" Stories
However, a journalist suggests that the investigators have overlooked an "important dynamic in newsrooms." Writing in the accompanying commentary, Merril Goozner, MS, a freelance writer based in Silver Spring, Maryland, agrees that the media has a "long-standing penchant for highlighting negative news." But he explains that "editors and reporters are painfully aware" that their products almost always emphasize war, mayhem, and especially lately,economic dislocation, and so "they aggressively look for feel-good stories as a counterweight." Healthcare, especially cancer care, offers numerous such opportunities, he adds. The end result is often hype, he concedes, citing several examples from the American media of researchers talking excitedly about results with cancer treatments in mice. But cancer coverage is not unique in raising unrealistic expectations, he adds, because most health-related stories do not paint a balanced picture, omit details on alternative options and the balance between harm and benefits, and seldom comment on the quality of the scientific evidence.
Dr. Fishman emphasized that the news reports that her team studied hardly mentioned end-of-life hospice and palliative care. "We feel this is a serious omission," she said, because there are numerous well-documented benefits for patients and family members. "Specifically, hospice programs deliver high-quality care at the end of life, with excellent patient and family satisfaction, reduced costs, and decreased suffering at the end of life," the researchers write.
"While cancer cannot always be cured, . . . pain can always be treated, and this may not be accurately communicated,"
Dr. Fishman added."For many patients with cancer, it is important to know about palliative and hospice care because this information can help them make decisions that realistically reflect their prognosis and the risks and benefits of treatment," the researchers write. "The media routinely report about aggressive treatment and survival, presumably because cancer news coverage is relevant to a large proportion of the population," they note. "For the same reason, similar attention should be devoted to the alternatives," they conclude.