Striking contrasts of hype versus rational reporting in leukemia story

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Right off the top, let me be clear that I am NOT minimizing the importance of this week’s news about an experimental treatment for leukemia – one that has drawn much news attention.

It is an important finding.

What I am commenting on herein is the news coverage.

The ABC television piece itself wasn’t bad, with good perspective from Dr. Len Lichtenfeld of the American Cancer Society. But the lead-in and the ending, both involving anchor Diane Sawyer, were hyperbolic. The following screenshot was part of Sawyer’s lead-in.

ABC leukemia hype lingo.jpg

Then, in the studio wrap up at the end of the video piece, general assignment reporter Linsey Davis, who had to handle this piece (and whose taped package wasn’t bad), concluded by saying that researchers hoped to try the approach in “pancreatic, ovarian, prostate and even brain cancer.”

To which Sawyer gushed in amazement:

“Good heavens – pancreatic and brain cancer!”

“Good heavens” because they’re going to TRY it on those cancers? Her ending verbal exclamation point left the impression that there were already amazing results in these cancers.

NBC’s online story had this in the first sentence:

“the sensational results from a single shot could be one of the most significant advances in cancer research in decades.”

Really? After an experiment in 3 people?

A CBS online story found its own depth of hyperbole:

“A new leukemia treatment has experts buzzing over a possible cure that may one day change cancer treatment forever.”

Again, really? After an experiment in 3 people?

Is there any institutional memory left in these news organizations about past cancer breakthroughs after experiments in a handful of people? Breakthroughs that didn’t pan out when experiments went from handfuls to dozens?

Look at how easily some news organizations chose to lead with calm and caveats.

Joe Palca did, in his post on the NPR Shots blog:

“Any time you report on promising but preliminary results about a new therapy for a lethal disease, you worry that you might be raising false hopes. So be warned: Although this is a “good news” story, it’s preliminary. Don’t expect to find it at a hospital near you any time soon.”

Ths is how he opened the story. It wasn’t buried deep at the end.

An AP story calmly and rationally opened:

“Scientists are reporting the first clear success with a new approach for treating leukemia — turning the patients’ own blood cells into assassins that hunt and destroy their cancer cells. They’ve only done it in three patients so far, but the results were striking.”

A Reuters story had a very measured headline, “Gene therapy shown to destroy leukemia tumors.” In fact, the entire piece was restrained, including important reminders:

“The treatment appears safe, but researchers said more study was needed. …In addition, the long-term viability of the treatment is still unknown.”

I think these latter examples did a more responsible job of reporting than the examples at the top of this piece.

Years ago I published a commentary on “The 7 Words You Shouldn’t Use in Medical Journalism.” I didn’t create the list; each of the words was put in my head by patients I’d interviewed. As I wrote at the time:

“A woman struggling with cancer once told me she wished medical reporters would leave the word hope out of their reports and allow consumers to decide how much hope to assign to each story. “

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Larry Husten

August 11, 2011 at 2:02 pm

Thanks, Gary, for writing this. I’ve been waiting for this blog post since about 5:01 PM yesterday when the flood of stories about this paper started appearing in my news feed. We didn’t even need to read the stories: the headlines were enough to prove that something was seriously amiss with the coverage of this potentially significant study of THREE patients.

Lynn Hanessian

August 12, 2011 at 10:55 am

Terrific post. In cancer, especially, everything is framed in heroic terms. Someone may die from heart disease, but with cancer, our departed loved ones are described as having waged a brave battle against the disease. The passion inspired by the war with cancer might just be fueling the hyperbole as well.

Bruce Levine

August 16, 2011 at 7:40 am

There has been some thoughtful and appropriate commentary of the hoopla over some media coverage of our papers, including Gary’s post here. I would like to stand up for Bob Bazelle, who reported for MSNBC and NBC on this story and was one of the only reporters to come to Penn and speak with us in depth about the data. He also has a Ph.D. in Immunology and wrote a book about Herceptin, so brings more understanding than most to coverage of immune based therapies.

Leo Catron

August 18, 2011 at 10:33 am

Great News!! Since I have this leukemia, it is exciting yet painful. Who knows how long our system will take to make this a reality for the masses?4 years ago, I recognized the value of this type of an treatment approach and submitted myself to gene therapy at Baylor in Texas. Results were minimal at best.
Frustrated with the inefficiencies of the FDA drug development system I started
My version of lowering costs and speeding technology forward. Never thought that I’d see successful gene therapy in my lifetime….And now this!! WOW!!
Deeply hope this strategy stays front and center and doesn’t get stalled with patent attorneys, and all the other beaurocratic things that can happen here. Hope the press will stay with this and not lose interest to the next story of the day. For so many like me, the real story starts now in how this truly good science gets fine tuned and applied to other areas of medicine.
How advocacy groups can help steer the process towards quicker implementation. How many years of life can be saved… For me, that starts with my own.51 year old Dad, Leo