The media and cancer: education or entertainment? An ethnographic study of European cancer journalists

Ajay Aggarwal, Rekha Batura and Richard Sullivan

March 12, 2014 by Prof. Sullivan in ICP Reports

The media plays a vital role in informing the public about new developments in cancer research and influencing cancer policy. This is no easy task, in view of the myriad of trials and wonder drugs that purport to be the ‘magic bullet’. However, misrepresentation can have profound consequences. In this qualitative study, we sought to understand the interaction between the media and cancer through the perspective of European science journalists by defining their attitudes towards current cancer research and challenges faced when reporting science news. A total of 67 respondents took part in this online survey, which was distributed by the European CanCer Organisation (ECCO) to all its media contacts between June and September 2013. Fifty-three per cent had over 20 years experience in reporting science news stories. The respondents utilised a number of media formats, including newsprint, online services, and radio.

Fifty per cent ranked public interest as the greatest influence on their selection of cancer research topics, followed by topicality. Respondents were conscious of being fed ambiguous and exaggerated results from trials by the research community. Sixty-five per cent of respondents would appreciate access to a forum of experts willing to provide comment on new research findings. Seventy per cent highlighted the importance of prompt responses from scientists and researchers during correspondence, and the need to have advance warning of new developments (49%). To conclude – coverage of cancer related issues and scientific advances require greater collaboration between the press and cancer healthcare community to provide both credibility and accountability for the health information disseminated. Key areas include a more precise definition of the research context and differentiation of absolute and relative risks, as well as individual and population risks and an informed discussion about the realities and limitations of cancer care and research.

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