A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine concludes that “News reports about cancer frequently discuss aggressive treatment and survival but rarely discuss treatment failure, adverse events, end-of-life care, or death. These portrayals of cancer care in the news media may give patients an inappropriately optimistic view of cancer treatment, outcomes, and prognosis.”
The authors conducted a content analysis of US cancer news reporting in 8 large-readership newspapers and 5 national magazines, and analyzed 436 articles about cancer.
Only 57 articles (13%) reported that aggressive cancer treatments can fail, and 131 (30%) reported that aggressive treatments can result in adverse events.
The authors comment:
“Very few news reports about cancer discuss death and dying, and even those that do generally do not mention palliative and hospice care. It is surprising that few articles discuss death and dying considering that half of all patients diagnosed as having cancer will not survive.
The tendency of the news to report on aggressive cancer treatments and survival but not on alternatives is also noteworthy given that unrealistic information may mislead the public about the trade-offs between attempts at heroic cures and hospice care. Several studies have suggested that end-of-life information may help patients with cancer develop realistic expectations for end-of-life medical care and improve outcomes. News coverage may also influence patients’ treatment decisions and expectations because patients’ informational needs are often not met by their cancer care providers, who may avoid end-of-life discussions.
How often should the news media discuss treatment failure, adverse events, end-of-life care, and death and dying? Although there is no quantifiable answer, the same educational goals that ideally drive news coverage of cancer treatment and survival should also compel news organizations to address these topics. The media routinely report about aggressive treatment and survival presumably because cancer news coverage is relevant to a large portion of the population, and, for the same reason, similar attention should be devoted to the alternatives.”