“The news is [not] all good”: misrepresentations and inaccuracies in Australian news media reports on prostate cancer screening

Ross MacKenzie, Simon Chapman, Alexandra Barratt and Simon Holding
Med J Aust 2007; 187 (9): 507-510. || doi: 10.5694/j.1326-5377.2007.tb01391.x
Published online: 5 November 2007

In 2005, the Australian Government reimbursed the cost of more than 1.2 million prostate-specific antigen (PSA) tests, with about 58% most likely being for screening and case finding. This widespread screening is occurring in the absence of evidence supporting screening as a way of reducing death from prostate cancer,1 and with near universal lack of support for PSA screening by leading international2-4 and Australian5,6 health care assessment and cancer control agencies. The American Cancer Society is the only major national cancer control agency advocating prostate cancer screening.7

Recent analysis of news coverage of prostate cancer demonstrated that Australian men are exposed to unbalanced and often non-evidence-based appeals to seek PSA testing.8 In the process of that research, numerous statements were found that were more than simply rhetorical, being factually incorrect. These were never subsequently corrected in the media in which they appeared. This article examines instances of those statements.


We located 388 newspaper and 42 television items on prostate cancer, and these contained 436 direct or attributed statements (101 television, 335 print). Of this total, 44 statements (10%) (31 print media, 13 television) dealing with prostate cancer were inaccurate or misleading. The remainder were a mixture of ideological and rhetorical statements (eg, about women having “their” cancers and men having prostate cancer) and many correct statements about (for example) how prostate cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in men. Eighteen illustrative examples of false or misleading statements from newspaper and television reports are listed below, with comments.

Claimed expert support for screening

The Urological Society of Australia and New Zealand’s policy states that “Population screening of asymptomatic men is not recommended”.11 The second media comment above implies a conflation of the importance of early detection via screening of breast, cervical and colon cancer with prostate cancer screening. This does not reflect Australian Government policy. Not once throughout the study period did any report mention that nearly all national and international cancer control and expert health technology assessment bodies do not support prostate population screening.

Accuracy of the test

Claims that the PSA test is more accurate for prostate cancer than mammography is for breast cancer are inconsistent with the evidence. For example, in the Prostate Cancer Prevention Trial, the sensitivity (capacity to detect cancer if present) of PSA at a cut-off level of 4.1 ng/mL was 40% for cancer with Gleason grade ≥ 7. In other words, the test missed 60% of moderate- to high-grade cancers.12 At the same threshold (4.1 ng/mL), the false positive rate was about 10%, meaning that 10% of men with no prostate cancer received an abnormal PSA result. This compares with a sensitivity of 75%–95% for screening mammography,13 and a false positive rate of 2%–7%.13,14 Because the sensitivity of the PSA test is poor, clinicians may use an even lower threshold such as 2.5 ng/mL in calling a test result abnormal. In the Prostate Cancer Prevention Trial, using 2.6 ng/mL as the threshold for an abnormal result increased the sensitivity to 67%, but the false positive rate increased to 23%.

The assertions that PSA testing detects significant disease and that most men with PSA-detected prostate cancer will die of their cancer are totally indefensible on the evidence. Among men with clinically detected, well differentiated prostate cancer, long-term survival is excellent, with little or no reduction in life expectancy compared with men without prostate cancer.15 As screen-detected cancers are, on average, less aggressive than clinically detected cancers,16,17 it is misleading and alarmist to imply that most PSA screen-detected cancer will be life threatening. Indeed the reverse is true: most PSA screen-detected cancer is not life threatening. Data from the European Randomized Study of Screening for Prostate Cancer suggest that, with yearly or even 4-yearly PSA screening, 48%–56% of the cancers found would never have been diagnosed in the absence of screening.18 The over-detection of prostate cancer (ie, screening detection of low-grade cancers not destined to affect health or life expectancy) is one reason why prostate cancer rates increase so steeply after the introduction of PSA screening.19-22

Over-diagnosis tends to lead to over-treatment, and the harms caused by treatments are important (see below).

The efficacy and importance of early detection and treatment

Claims attributing observed declines in prostate cancer mortality to PSA screening are based on observational studies, which provide unreliable evidence for addressing this question. Declines in prostate cancer mortality in the United States have been attributed to PSA screening, but also to improved treatments available for advanced prostate cancers.23 Similar falls have been observed in England and Wales, where PSA testing is less common and “has been discouraged”.24 In Canada, one study demonstrated that the decline in mortality is unlikely to be due to PSA testing, despite claims to the contrary.25 The efficacy of PSA screening will not be resolved until the PSA trials currently in progress report their results.

There are some studies (randomised trials and observational studies) comparing different management options for prostate cancer (eg, comparing surgery [radical prostatectomy] and watchful waiting26). However, the applicability of this study to the question of the efficacy of PSA screening is limited, as it recruited subjects who predominantly had clinically detected, rather than screen-detected, cancers.26 As noted, many screen-detected cancers will not threaten survival in the same way as clinically detected cancers, and therefore data from such studies may not be applicable to screen-detected cancers. Treatment trials in men with screen-detected cancers are needed.

Reassurance on adverse effects

Considerable evidence contrasts markedly with these optimistic claims made by screening advocates. A follow-up study of men undergoing radical prostatectomy reported that, after 5 years, 14%–16% of men had urinary incontinence, and 79% had erections insufficient for intercourse.27 A review undertaken by the US Preventive Services Taskforce (USPST) found 15%–50% of men experienced long-lasting urinary problems after prostatectomy, compared with 2%–16% after radiation therapy.15 The same review found that 20%–70% and 20%–45% of men experience reduced erectile function after prostatectomy and radiation therapy, respectively, and 6%–25% experience bowel problems after radiation therapy.15 Adjuvant therapies such as androgen deprivation therapy also have adverse effects: 5%–25% experience breast swelling and 50%–60% experience hot flushes. All these measures were recorded at least 12 months after treatment.15

Significantly, the USPST review noted that current evidence on whether newer nerve-sparing surgical procedures reduce rates of adverse effects was mixed “outside of excellent academic centers”,15 a point particularly relevant to the debate in Australia, where the purported benefits of robotically assisted prostate surgery using the da Vinci surgical system have featured in four television items. On 60 Minutes, an extended segment was introduced with:

However, only three Australian facilities have the equipment, and only 11 surgeons are trained in its use.28 Although advantages reportedly exist in terms of decreased patient pain and recovery times, long-term oncological benefits are unclear, nor is there clear evidence of appreciable reductions in the incidence of incontinence or erectile dysfunction.29,30

Given that the da Vinci system has only been in use since the late 1990s, the absence of long-term results is predictable, but this “lack of current clear evidence that there is true benefit associated with this technology”31 has not stopped Australian proponents from highlighting its efficacy. “[A]ggressive marketing and commercial interests”31 are key factors in promoting this costly technology.

Men considering these claims should be aware that optimistic claims about adverse effects after prostate surgery are commonly made by urologists. However, when ratings of urinary symptoms made by patients and by their urologists are compared, significantly more adverse ratings are made by patients.32

Finally, the adverse psychological effects of receiving a cancer diagnosis, and then having to make difficult choices between treatments, all of which have substantial risks of adverse effects, should not be overlooked. Men who choose watchful waiting over any of these treatment options have to live with their cancer diagnosis. Data from the trial of prostatectomy versus watchful waiting suggest that the quality-of-life effect of a cancer diagnosis followed by watchful waiting or surgery is substantial.33


Australians relying on news media for informed comment on prostate cancer are exposed to an overwhelmingly positive stream of encouragement to seek testing.8 This encouragement draws on a variety of rhetorical themes, particularly the notion that early detection of asymptomatic cancer is the cornerstone of successful early intervention. Although 10% of the statements in our study sample were assessed as false or misleading, this should not be taken to mean that the reciprocal 90% were all “correct”: many were statements best described as rhetorical, being neither right nor wrong. In summary, the overall “message” being received by Australian men through the media about prostate cancer is dominated by rhetoric supporting screening. This also incorporates inaccurate and misleading information and rarely provides media audiences with anything remotely approaching the Urological Society of Australia and New Zealand’s concern that men should receive information “regarding the potential risks and benefits of investigations and the controversies of treatment”.11 Instead, as a prominent advocate for screening expressed in hyperbolic overdrive, “the news is all good”. Australian men are ill served by such unbridled optimism and the false and misleading statements documented in this article.

Journalists, editors and program producers have huge responsibilities in ensuring the accuracy and balance of information and the reliability of sources they select to communicate with sometimes millions of consumers about matters that can, as in this case, precipitate major life-altering actions. Information about the continuing controversy over prostate cancer screening is readily locatable on the Internet from authoritative sources that do not have competing interests. This information shows that glib, uncritical parallels with screening to detect breast, cervical and colon cancer are not evidence based.

Similarly, using as news sources men who have had prostate cancer detected by screening can be problematic. Such men often believe fervently that they would not be alive without having been screened, often not appreciating that their cancer may not have affected their lives and that, if they promote screening, many other men will suffer avoidable, adverse effects of postoperative surgery or have to live with the knowledge that they have cancer. We found no examples of urologists who claimed low incontinence and impotency rates following surgery who qualified these claims by explaining that the average man having a prostatectomy in Australia will be highly unlikely to have robotic surgery. Although upbeat, optimistic claims by doctors, pleas for screening by men who had learnt they had cancer after being tested, and footage of high-tech machinery may all make appealing television, such a diet is a poor foundation on which Australian men can make informed choices about being tested. Independent health authorities should commission and promote decision aids to assist men in making these choices.34

Received 30 April 2007, accepted 19 June 2007

  • Ross MacKenzie1
  • Simon Chapman2
  • Alexandra Barratt3
  • Simon Holding4

  • School of Public Health, University of Sydney, Sydney, NSW.

Competing interests:

This study was funded by the Cancer Council NSW, which does not support population screening for prostate cancer. Ross MacKenzie is an employee of the Cancer Council NSW.

  • 1. Ilic D, O’Connor D, Green S, et al. Screening for prostate cancer. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2006; (3): CD004720.
  • 2. International Union Against Cancer. 3.7 Screening. In: Evidence-based cancer prevention: strategies for NGOs. A UICC handbook for Europe. Geneva: UICC, 2004. http://www. (accessed Jun 2007).
  • 3. US Preventive Services Task Force. Screening for prostate cancer. Rockville, Md: USPSTF, 2002. (accessed Jun 2007).
  • 4. United Kingdom National Health Service. National Screening Committee policy — prostate cancer screening. July 2006. (accessed Jun 2007).
  • 5. Australian Prostate Cancer Collaboration Inc [website]. (accessed Jun 2007).
  • 6. The Cancer Council Australia. Prostate cancer screening position statement. Sydney: Cancer Council Australia, 2005. (accessed Jun 2007).
  • 7. American Cancer Society. Guidelines for the early detection of cancer. Atlanta: ACS, 2007. lines_36.asp (accessed Jun 2007).
  • 8. MacKenzie R, Chapman S, Holding S, McGeechan K. “A matter of faith, not science”: discourse on prostate cancer screening in Australian news media 2003–2006. J R Soc Med 2007. In press.
  • 9. Chapman S, MacKenzie R. The Australian Health News Research Collaboration [letter]. Med J Aust 2007; 186: 326. <MJA full text>
  • 10. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Australia’s health 2006. Canberra: AIHW, 2006. (AIHW Cat. No. AUS 73.) (accessed Jul 2007).
  • 11. Urological Society of Australia and New Zealand. PSA testing for prostate cancer. (accessed Jun 2007).
  • 12. Thompson IM, Ankherst DP, Chi C, et al. Operating characteristics of prostate-specific antigen in men with an initial PSA level of 3.0 ng/mL or lower. JAMA 2005; 294: 66-70.
  • 13. Kerlikowske K, Grady D, Barclay J, et al. Likelihood ratios for modern screening mammography: risk of breast cancer based on age and mammographic interpretation. JAMA 1996; 276: 39-43.
  • 14. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. BreastScreen Australia monitoring report 2000–2001. (AIHW Cancer Series No. 25). Canberra: AIHW, 2003: Tables 30 and 32. (AIHW Cat. No. CAN 20.) (accessed Jul 2007).
  • 15. Harris R, Lohr KN. Screening for prostate cancer: an update of the evidence for the US Preventive Services Task Force. Ann Intern Med 2002; 137: 917-929.
  • 16. Morrison AS. Screening in chronic disease. Monographs in epidemiology and biostatistics. Vol. 19. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
  • 17. Barratt A, Irwig L, Glasziou P, et al. Users’ guides to the medical literature: XVII. How to use guidelines and recommendations about screening. JAMA 1999; 281: 2029-2034.
  • 18. Draisma G, Boer R, Otto SJ, et al. Lead times and overdetection due to prostate-specific antigen screening: estimates from the European Randomized Study of Screening for Prostate Cancer. J Natl Cancer Inst 2003; 95: 868-878.
  • 19. McDavid K, Melnik TA, Derderian H. Prostate cancer screening trends of New York State men at least 50 years of age, 1994 to 1997. Prev Med 2000; 31: 195-202.
  • 20. Threlfall TJ, English DR, Rouse IL. Prostate cancer in Western Australia: trends in incidence and mortality from 1985 to 1996. Med J Aust 1998; 169: 21-24. <MJA full text>
  • 21. McCaul KA, Luke CG, Roder DM. Trends in prostate cancer incidence and mortality rates in South Australia, 1977–1993. Med J Aust 1995; 162: 520-522.
  • 22. Smith DP, Armstrong BK. Prostate-specific antigen testing in Australia and association with prostate cancer incidence in New South Wales. Med J Aust 1998; 169: 17-20. <MJA full text>
  • 23. Vis AN. Does PSA screening reduce prostate cancer mortality [commentary]? CMAJ 2002; 166: 600-601.
  • 24. Oliver SE, Gunnel D, Donovan JL. Comparison of trends in prostate-cancer mortality in England and Wales and the USA. Erratum in: Lancet 2000; 356: 1278. Lancet 2000; 355: 1788-1789.
  • 25. Perron L, Moore L, Bairati I, et al. PSA screening and prostate cancer mortality. CMAJ 2002; 166: 586-591.
  • 26. Holmberg L, Bill-Axelson A, Helgesen F, et al. A randomized trial comparing radical prostatectomy with watchful waiting in early prostate cancer. N Engl J Med 2002; 347: 781-789.
  • 27. Potosky AL, Davis WW, Hoffman RM. Five-year outcomes after prostatectomy or radiotherapy for prostate cancer: the Prostate Cancer Outcomes Study. J Natl Cancer Inst 2004; 96: 1358-1367.
  • 28. da Vinci [website]. Hospitals and doctors. (accessed Jul 2007).
  • 29. Patel VR, Chammas Jr MF, Shah S. Robotic assisted laparoscopic radical prostatectomy: a review of the current state of affairs. Int J Clin Pract 2007; 61: 309-314.
  • 30. Rassweiler J, Hruza M, Teber D, et al. Laparoscopic and robotic assisted radical prostatectomy — critical analysis of the results. Eur Urol 2006; 49: 612-624.
  • 31. Maddern GJ. Robotic surgery: will it be evidence-based or just “toys for boys” [editorial]? Med J Aust 2007; 186: 221-222. <MJA full text>
  • 32. McCammon K, Kolm P, Main B. Comparative quality-of-life analysis after radical prostatectomy or external beam radiation for localized prostate cancer. Urology 1999; 54: 509-516.
  • 33. Steineck G, Helgesen F, Adolfsson J, et al. Quality of life after radical prostatectomy or watchful waiting. N Engl J Med 2002; 347: 790-796.
  • 34. Trevena LJ, Davey HM, Barratt A, et al. A systematic review on communicating with patients about evidence. J Eval Clin Pract 2006; 12: 13-23.


remove_circle_outline Delete Author
add_circle_outline Add Author

Do you have any competing interests to declare? *

I/we agree to assign copyright to the Medical Journal of Australia and agree to the Conditions of publication *
I/we agree to the Terms of use of the Medical Journal of Australia *
Email me when people comment on this article

Online responses are no longer available. Please refer to our instructions for authors page for more information.