Dr. Len Lichtenfeld of the American Cancer Society joins his colleague, Dr. Otis Brawley, in writing about his concerns about news coverage of the big American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting. Lichtenfeld cites a specific example, and drills down in more detail:
“Most of the media hypes the study which demonstrated improvement in treatment of advanced ovarian cancer with a targeted therapy drug and ignore the concerns. What appeared to be a very positive study in an abstract may not have been so positive after all.
Patients, families and their physicians are now under the impression that a new advance has been made in this deadly disease, when that may not be the case. The positive press releases and news conferences were not balanced. Most of the media ignored the expert who raised legitimate concerns and cautions. But that information was only available to those who waited for the study to be presented and were in the audience at the time.
Hopes have been falsely raised, when some caution is needed and appropriate.
More importantly, patients, families and friends are going to be wondering how a study that received such a positive response in the press could possibly not be the hope they had been waiting for, and had learned about through the media reports.
Sometimes, it all comes down to getting the right understanding of what a research study really says and how that relates to its true impact. And sometimes it’s the story behind the story that you don’t see addressed in enthusiastic media reports, as is the case with this particular trial.
My sense of this particular trial is “stay tuned.” There is surely going to be more discussion of this study in the months and years ahead.
And always remember that hope sells. Tempered hope doesn’t. Failure of hope rarely gets reported. That would be (unfortunately) too brutally honest.
Sometimes, it is as simple as that.”
It is so important that these ACS officials are speaking up and writing about these issues. For many years, you would not have heard such comments from anyone at the ACS. But Brawley and Lichtenfeld are seeing things through the same prism that we see things through every day in our review of health news coverage – some excellent, but far too many unacceptably naive, fawning, cheerleading “churnalism” that may do more harm than good.
That’s what news organizations need to grasp: there can be harm caused by superficial reporting – as both Brawley and Lichtenfeld adroitly point out.