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CBS story on pancreatic cancer vaccine provides only one glowing anecdote – no data

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CBS’ Dr. Jennifer Ashton started with the numbers: Pancreatic cancer kills three-quarters of the people diagnosed with it within a year, and 95 percent within five years. But then she stopped. In discussing a clinical trial at Johns Hopkins that is testing a new immune therapy, she gave absolutely no data on what’s been seen so far: nothing on how many people tested, for how long, with what results, with what side effects. Nothing. Just gee whiz. And one positive personal anecdote, for which viewers are given no basis to know if it’s a representative story of what’s been seen so far or not.

Pancreatic cancer is an awful disease. But if this is going to be the standard for what gets reported – and how – viewers are not going to learn very much about the true progress and pitfalls of research.

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Kristina

July 13, 2010 at 9:26 am

I agree that reporting on new cancer treatments can sometimes be overly positive, but before we judge Jennifer Ashton and tell her she’s the worst reporter in the world for giving people false hope, let’s take two factors into account:
1) This is a three and a half minute news segment. I doubt that the details you are looking for can be crammed into a three and a half minute news segment. Ideally she could and should have referred people who were interested in learning more about the clinical trial to a website or something, but who’s to say she didn’t research and report all of those things you were talking about, and the editor just decided there wasn’t enough time to fit that into the segment, so he cut it out? In TV news, the reporter doesn’t have total control over his or her report.
2) This is a morning show that’s competing with several different networks for millions of viewers (i.e. ratings). Can you honestly tell me that the average person watching a three and a half minute segment on cancer is interested in hearing about data, clinical results and a bunch of other medical jargon? TV networks create fluff pieces like this to grab viewers, and unfortunately viewers are drawn to fluff pieces. Also a morning show like the Early Show isn’t necessarily a news show. It has news, but it also has cooking segments and live concerts, and it exists as a platform to promote other TV programs on the host network. At the end of the day, the Early Show is exactly what it professes to be: a TV *show* that’s broadcast *early* in the morning. Any idiot who would trust a TV show to get their news without doing any further research deserves whatever false sense of security he gets.
Besides, at the end of the day, this story’s main audience is patients with pancreatic cancer and their families. Someone with pancreatic cancer is probably well-aware of their survival chances. A good doctor wouldn’t beat around the bush and would tell them everything they need to know about a cancer diagnosis so that, unlike the old man described in the segment, he wouldn’t have to look up facts on his own and get scared to death. If nothing else, Ashton’s piece is getting the word out and telling these people that there is something out there that could help them and could be worth looking into. And when you’re faced with certain death, I don’t see the problem with at least giving it a shot. What do they have to lose?

Gary Schwitzer

July 13, 2010 at 10:48 am

Kristina,
Thanks for your note.
First, let me correct some assertions you made. You wrote, “Before we judge Jennifer Ashton and tell her she’s the worst reporter in the world for giving people false hope…” Who made that judgment? We didn’t. We didn’t write it, say it, think it. So your comment starts on a false note.
Second, you write, “I doubt that the details you are looking for can be crammed into a three and a half minute news segment.” Yes they can. We’ve reviewed other stories that have done so. I worked in TV health news for 15 years. It can be done.
Third, you also write, “who’s to say she didn’t research and report all of those things you were talking about, and the editor just decided there wasn’t enough time to fit that into the segment, so he cut it out? In TV news, the reporter doesn’t have total control over his or her report.” If that is the case, that is an important inherent flaw in TV news that seems important to bring to peoples’ attention.
Fourth, you wrote, “Can you honestly tell me that the average person watching a three and a half minute segment on cancer is interested in hearing about data, clinical results and a bunch of other medical jargon?” Yes, I can honestly tell you that smart, informed health care consumers want more information about evidence, about harms and benefits, about costs, etc.
Fifth, you write, “A morning show like the Early Show isn’t necessarily a news show.” Then why it is labeled CBS News on the air and on its website? Why is Dr. Ashton’s title “medical correspondent”?
Sixth, you write that “at the end of the day, this story’s main audience is patients with pancreatic cancer and their families.” Really? A broadcast news program – reaching untold people of unknown backgrounds has as its main audience a limited slice of the overall population as if it knows who is watching?
Finally, you conclude, “And when you’re faced with certain death, I don’t see the problem with at least giving it a shot. What do they have to lose?” Nothing we wrote says people shouldn’t have that shot. What we wrote addressed the journalism – not the research or patient care. What we fervently believe people should get from such a story is a better sense of balance on what’s known and what’s not known about potential benefits and harms over what period of time and in how many people so far. One positive personal anecdote doesn’t tell viewers very much at all. The plural of anecdote is not data.