Veteran reporter Richard Knox, with a next-day folo, delivers the best analysis we’ve seen or heard yet on the National Lung Screening Trial, which reports a benefit from CT scan screening of current and former heavy smokers.
In his report, Knox provides balance and perspective, including skepticism that “it’s too early to know if this is ready for prime time.” He includes the number needed to screen of 300 – meaning 300 would need to be scanned in order for one life to be extended. (That means the other 299 would have to be scanned, run the risk of false positives which was initially reported to be 25%, run the risks of followup testing and treatment, and incur the costs of scanning and additional testing and treatment – not an insignificant bundle of issues.)
By comparison, CBS’ Dr. Jon LaPook didn’t include any interview expressing any caution about interpreting the study, and said, “the new study suggests the benefit of finding lung cancer early trumps the risks.” While LaPook went on to discuss the number needed to screen, false positives and costs, the imbalance in interviews and in that “benefit trumps risks” statement may be what sticks with viewers.
Somewhat similarly, NBC News covered costs, risks, false positives, and ensuing unnecessary testing and treatment, but didn’t include the number needed to screen and didn’t include interviews with anyone expressing any caveats. NBC’s most troublesome line: that this “has been a huge controversy for years but researchers resolved it.” Not quite! Their story did disclose that GE, parent company of NBC, is a player in this field.
At the other extreme, ABC News had the least balanced report. Its lead-in graphic called this a “breakthrough.” Contrast that with the NPR expert interviewee who said it’s too early to know if this is ready for prime time. And ABC used the tired “Holy Grail” line. It featured conflicted CT scan advocate Dr. Claudia Henschke crying over the news. It used the word “cure” and featured a man it said was “one of the lives she (Henschke) saved.”
Overall, this has been a troubling week for news coverage of various screening tests. It’s nice to be able to point to some examples – like Dick Knox’s NPR report – of what can be done when a smart, veteran reporter is given time to give appropriate context.
Addendum: More analysis by NPR and Knox was posted today. This one was headlined, “How Questions About Mammography Apply To CT Scans For Lung Cancer.”