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New research shows what a lousy job local TV news does with cancer topics

Gary Schwitzer is the founder & publisher of HealthNewsReview.org.  Back in the 1970s he worked in local TV health news in Milwaukee and Dallas before joining CNN.  Then he saw the light and left TV news altogether.

Tom Jacobs, on the Miller-McCune Smart Journalism site, summarizes two recent studies. Excerpts:

“By focusing on shocking new studies that reveal a “novel or controversial” potential cause of the disease, local television news tends “to cultivate the belief that everything causes cancer,” a research team led by Cornell University’s Jeff Niederdeppe writes in the Journal of Communication.

(The researchers) conclude by suggesting scientists and educators might want to give local newscasters a nudge.

“Researchers and public health officials might consider conducting educational or training sessions with local TV journalists to report on cancer in a way that minimizes the likelihood of developing fatalistic beliefs,” they write. Specifically, reporters should be encouraged to provide “appropriate caveats to new research on cancer causes,” and to emphasize “evidence-based recommendations for cancer prevention.”

While such informational sessions would surely be helpful, decisions on which stories run are inevitably made with ratings in mind. Perhaps TV news directors addicted to scare-mongering health coverage should emulate a surgeon dealing with a tumor, and just cut it out.

mmw_mediator0131.jpgWe’re not sure if this research team knows about our HealthNewsReview.org project. For more than 3 years we tried to do exactly what they recommend – with network TV health reporters, not at the local level. It didn’t seem to do much good. We announced that we would no longer review even network TV news starting 17 months ago because the quality of a large sample (228 stories) was poor, not improving, and there were other fish for us to fry – other media we were not reviewing who might be more receptive to our outreach.

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