On the very day that we announced that HealthNewsReview.org would no longer systematically review network TV health news stories, we were provided two fresh examples – both on ABC – of the sorry state of many network TV health news efforts.
Reporting on the two studies in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute that raised important questions about both prostate cancer screening and breast cancer screening (at least the role of clinical breast exams), ABC still managed to end up with strong statements of endorsement – DESPITE the evidence on which they just reported.
On ABC’s World News Tonight, reporter Dan Harris turned to a New York urologist for his only expert interview on the prostate issue. He didn’t interview the authors of the study. Nor Dr. Otis Brawley of the American Cancer Society who wrote a powerful accompanying editorial. He only turned to a urologist, who makes his living off of diagnosing and treating prostate cancer.
Harris asked the urologist: “Seeing this study, one is tempted to conclude that you should stay away from early screening. Is that the right conclusion to reach?”
The urologist responded: “That’s absolutely the wrong conclusion to reach. …You should be screened because if you had cancer you’d want to know about it.”
Harris’ conclusion: “Bottomline: doctors we spoke with today said you should still go for early screening but you should know that these tests are not foolproof.”
Harris said they spoke with “doctors” (plural). Viewers should ask: which doctors? Who were they? Were they all urologists? Why didn’t you have the authors appear (one of whom is a urologist)? We only heard from one urologist.
Then, on ABC’s Good Morning America this morning, medical contributor Dr. Marie Savard reviewed the two studies. Savard wrapped up her discussion with anchor Diane Sawyer by emphasizing that the digital rectal exam (one prostate screening option) “is still important.”
Savard: “Men you still need to appear every year and get checked.”
Diane Sawyer “You’d rather have a false positive than something missed.”
Savard’s opinion and Sawyer’s rhetoric clash with the recommendations of major scientific and medical organizations, which don’t differentiate between PSA tests and digital rectal exams.
Neither the PSA test nor the DRE is 100% accurate. Abnormal results of these tests don’t always mean that cancer is present, and normal results don’t always mean that there is no cancer. Uncertain or false test results could cause confusion and anxiety. Some men might have a prostate biopsy (which carries its own small risks, along with discomfort) when cancer is not present, while others might get a false sense of security from normal test results when cancer is actually present.
No major scientific or medical organizations, including the American Cancer Society (ACS), American Urological Association (AUA), US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), American College of Physicians (ACP), National Cancer Institute (NCI), American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), and American College of Preventive Medicine (ACPM) support routine testing for prostate cancer at this time.
Over and over and over I have written about how many news organizations stick to the pro-screening message despite the best and latest evidence.
ABC News has done it again – twice – in different programs.
There were opportunities here to drive home the importance of shared decision-making, to explain the uncertainties, to show how there isn’t one best choice for all people. But despite the fact that they reported on the studies – mostly accurately – they still left viewers with strong screening endorsements at the end of both programs.
That’s advocacy, not journalism.