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Need facts, not emotion, in disease awareness campaigns

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Suddenly lung cancer is a hot topic in newsrooms. Peter Jenning dies one day. The next day Christopher Reeve’s widow announces she has lung cancer. So it is understandable that some well-intentioned “disease awareness” efforts would come forward.

But journalists should employ facts and full disclosure when giving attention to such disease awareness campaigns. (The “Selling Sickness” book by Moynihan and Cassels gives many reasons why.)

CNN gave several minutes of airtime yesterday to a founder of the group, Women Against Lung Cancer. The network never revealed that the group receives financial support from the drug industry — from makers of lung cancer drugs. But CNN also allowed the guest to talk about “studies looking at special spiral CAT scans of the chest so that we can pick up tiny nodules, hopefully before they have a chance to get into the bloodstream and spread.” What neither the guest nor CNN disclosed is that many scientists don’t think there is proof that such scans prevent premature death. And many see risks in such screening, even the possibility that they do more harm than good when scans lead to unnecessary followup testing that carries its own risk. That’s why they’re doing the studies. It’s not a slam dunk that benefits will outweigh risks.

Those would have been balanced facts to present. Not just the promise of early diagnosis discussed during the emotional reaction to two celebrities’ diagnoses.

When you hear about “disease awareness” campaigns, always look for facts in context and full disclosure.

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