Poor reporting of mammography recommendations by local TV

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This is the kind of reporting that does not serve the best interests of “breast cancer awareness month.”

WCCO-TV reports on one woman who they say, “skips federal advice, finds breast cancer.” The station reports, “Last November, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force said women in their 40s should not get routine mammograms.”

That is simply and harmfully incomplete and inaccurate.

Here’s what the USPSTF actually wrote:

“The decision to start regular, biennial screening mammography before the age of 50 years should be an individual one and take patient context into account, including the patient’s values regarding specific benefits and harms.”

The TV story also states that the woman they profiled “is a 42-year-old woman who should have many healthy years ahead of her, and has a very strong opinion about mammograms.” But this inaccurate and imbalanced report didn’t reflect any other opinions – or evidence – to balance the discussion.

Please note that just last week we praised a competing Twin Cities TV station’s reporting on another complex breast cancer issue. That reporting, by KMSP-TV, is a model for what could be done. This story, by WCCO, is not.

It is not in the public interest – not in viewers’ best interests – to simplify this complex issue. It is in response to topics like this that journalism must rise to a higher level of evaluating evidence, of considering shared decision-making approaches, and of presenting the full range of options available to women. If you can’t do that, you might be better off leaving the topics alone because harm can be done.

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Liz Seegert

October 5, 2010 at 12:26 pm

You make some excellent points & it’s easy to see the differences in the two pieces. I’ve been writing about healthcare issues for 20 years and the one thing I’ve learned is that there are no “absolutes.” What is protocol today may be considered archaic in 10 years.
Not only is it important for reporters to get their facts correct, but they also need to respect the sensitivity of this issue. There is no one “right” decision for every woman. The only right decision is the one the woman makes for herself. The WCCO report seems to imply that mammograms are the right answer for everyone; it doesn’t discuss the flip side – false positives, or missed lumps or additional radiation exposure. Journalism without balance is an editorial.
Please keep up the great work!