Design and setting: Search of the Media Doctor Australia media-monitoring website for stories about newly reported cancer interventions, including drugs, diagnostic tests, surgery and complementary therapies, that had been collected from June 2004 to June 2009 and rated for quality using a validated rating instrument. A mixed-methods approach was used to analyse data and story content. Data from the website on stories about other new health interventions and procedures were compared.
Main outcome measures: Differences in quality scores between cancer-related news stories (“cancer stories”) and other stories, and between types of media outlet; differences in how cancer was reported in terms of cancer type, morbidity, mortality, and in the use of hyperbole and emotive language.
Results: 272 unique cancer stories were critically reviewed by Media Doctor Australia. Cancer stories had significantly higher scores for quality than other stories (F = 7.1; df = 1; P = 0.008). Most cancer stories concerned disease affecting the breast or prostate gland, with breast cancer appearing to be over-represented as a topic relative to its incidence. Pairwise comparisons showed statistically significant superiority for broadsheet newspaper stories over online stories (F = 12.7; df = 1; P < 0.001) and television stories (F = 10.7; df = 1; P = 0.001). Descriptions of morbidity and mortality were variable and often confusing in terms of numbers, time periods and locations. Literary devices including hyperbole and emotive language were used extensively, mostly by the researchers.
Conclusions: While reporting of cancer in the general media is of low quality, many of the poorer aspects of content are directly attributable to the researchers. Researchers and journals need to do more to ensure that a higher standard of information about cancer is presented to the media.
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