Too much emotion – not enough evidence – in TV's coverage of breast cancer screening

I watched all three TV networks’ lead stories from last night’s newscasts – all three on the US Preventive Services Task Force’s new breast cancer screening recommendations. Lots of talk about “anger, confusion, concern, fear, outright revolt, disturbing, shocking” reactions from women and doctors all across the country.

First, I’ll note a reasonably well-balanced job by CBS’ Dr. Jon LaPook and by NBC’s Dr. Nancy Snyderman. LaPook included a woman who had experienced a false positive mammogram. Snyderman talked about data versus personal anecdotes.

But ABC’s Dr. Timothy Johnson gave a personal recommendation – perhaps only because he was asked to by anchor Charles Gibson – and recommended “sticking with the current guidelines.” He said he understood concerns about costs and quality. But that misses the underpinning of much of the USPSTF’s recommendation and rationale. It implies that the USPSTF considered costs, which they have repeatedly reiterated they did not. He never addressed false positives and the harms thereof. So his summary was misleading and incomplete.

And CBS again allowed Dr. Jennifer Ashton to give her own personal medical opinion, saying “I am not telling (women) to deviate from their screening practices.”

I have a lot of problems with the networks giving airtime to the opinions of their physician-correspondents. Do they ask political reporters about their voting habits? Do they ask economics reporters what their investments are? Do they ask the White House correspondent if they personally like the President or support his stances?

I don’t personally care what Timothy Johnson or Jennifer Ashton recommend – and I don’t think there’s any reason for anyone in the viewing audience to care. In this venue, they are supposed to be journalists. Not recommenders. Not opinion-promoters.

Instead of promoting their celebrity docs, the networks should use that precious air time to educate people on the evidence behind the USPSTF recommendations.

All three networks – and many other news organizations – are treating this issue as if it’s new. There never has been certainty about mammography recommendations for women in their 40s. And it was just 12 years ago that an NIH Consensus Conference on this issue resulted in a great uproar – what one editorialist described as “what took place seemed more akin to the Queen’s order in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: “Off with her head!” Thus began the latest round in the debate over recommendations for breast-cancer screening.”

Journalism has to take responsibility for conveying far too much certainty about screening issues. And at times like this, when evidence-based bodies speak up, journalists – and the public they serve – act as if their worlds have been shaken. But, in fact, their world on this issue never was cast in concrete. Anyone who spends anytime following this issue would know that.

In the face of the confusion, journalists can fuel the flames by interviewing endless women about their personal anecdotes. Or they can explain, give context, history, guide readers and viewers through the confusion.

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