Theoretical Background and research questions/hypothesis: A growing number of patients rely on news media to provide a significant amount of health information to aid their and their loved ones’ health decision-making. Unfortunately, a substantial body of research has identified recurring flaws in coverage of new cancer treatments. In response to some of these criticisms, the Informed Medical Decisions Foundation provided funding for the creation of HealthNewsReview.org (HNR), an independent organization of medical and media experts to publish systematic reviews of selected news stories to try to improve the quality of health care journalism. However, thus far, no study has systematically analyzed these expert reviews to gain a greater understanding of how these experts are evaluating chosen cancer stories. It is the goal of this submission to provide that unique analysis, and to also offer a systematic scope of inquiry to improve practice into the current failings of cancer news coverage.
Methods: This study employed a quantitative content analysis of cancer news story reviews on the HNR website from 2005 to 2013 (N=469). Two time frames were identified [time 1: 2005-2009 (n=225); time 2: 2010-2013 (n=245)] to see if there has been an improvement in coverage over time, and to identify whether there are trends in stories about specific treatments and/or cancer types.
Results: From 2005-2013, breast (28.6%) and prostate cancer (20.7%) were the most frequent cancer types to be reviewed, but there was no significant change between T1 and T2 in frequency by cancer type [X2 (1, N = 468) = 8.24, ns]. However, there was a positive increase between T1 (M=.55) and T2 (M=.61) in the average score HNR reviewers gave all cancer stories for meeting their criteria [F(1, 468) = 4.89, p = .028). That said, when analyzing which specific types of cancer interventions were most poorly reported, stories that discussed new drug therapies consistently failed to report the cost of treatment [X2 (1, N = 468) = 10.86, p = .004]. Also, stories that provided information on dietary solutions to prevent and/or reduce cancer recurrence failed to discuss the quality of evidence when reporting new trials results [X2 (1, N = 468) = 7.09, p = .029], and regularly committed disease mongering [X2 (1, N = 468) = 5.43, p = .021]. Finally, cervical cancer stories rarely reported the costs associated with different cervical cancer screening modalities [X2 (1, N = 468) = 9.51, p = .009], and stories about skin cancer frequently failed to disclose potential conflicts of interest when using expert sources [X2 (1, N = 468) = 7.23, p = .027].
Conclusions: From these initial findings, news outlets are doing a better job now than they did 10 years ago when reporting new treatment information in cancer stories. However, stories about new drugs and “cancer-preventing diets” continually fail to provide accurate, balanced or complete information to health consumers.
Implications for research and/or practice: HNR is providing an invaluable service to improve the quality of public dialogue about health care in news media by helping consumers critically analyze new interventions while promoting shared decision-making.