Imbalanced NPR political story on new draft mammography guidelines

Mammogram -iStock_000003327999 410x273A physician-follower of this site wrote to me: “Please consider reviewing this very lopsided and scientifically uninformed piece on NPR on breast cancer screening.”

The piece was headlined, “Congress May Be Forced To Intervene Again On Mammogram Recommendations.” We offered a roundup of news coverage on the issue – new US Preventive Services Task Force draft recommendations – last week.

The lead-in to the NPR piece gives a little background about the USPSTF recommendations – 6 years ago – and now. The lead-in stated: “It still discourages women from taking a test they commonly get for free.” That felt like an imbalanced introduction from the outset.

The piece was delivered by a congressional reporter, not a health care reporter, and it sounds like it.

I would agree with the reader who brought this to my attention, saying it was lopsided. And, because the politics of the issue are dominant, it’s not surprising that it is scientifically incomplete.

Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, diagnosed with breast cancer at age 41, said in the piece:  “We know that there are women who will die if this recommendation goes through.”

There was another soundbite from former US Congressman Phil Gingrey from 6 years ago: “You put doctors in an untenable position and you put their patients at risk of death”

Missouri Senator Ray Blunt, then in the House, was featured saying:  “These new proposed guidelines have caused a great deal of confusion for women. I believe it’s a huge mistake to send a message to women and their families that an early alert system is not beneficial.”

Stances in opposition to the US Preventive Services Task Force by the American Cancer Society and the American College of Radiology were cited.

But the 4 minute piece had no interview with anyone with the Task Force. Not a quote.  Not a word. That’s imbalance.  You can talk about bipartisan opposition all you want.  But on a scientific controversy, citing bipartisan opposition doesn’t equate to balanced or sound journalism.

The comments are coming in on the NPR website. And the imbalanced story may have fueled some of the imbalanced commentary, such as:

  • One commenter said that “false positives are easily checked.”
  • But to that, another commenter responded: “False positives can result in a great deal of stress in addition to unnecessary and potentially dangerous surgeries.”

But some NPR listeners were upset by the journalism involved, writing:

  • “Disappointing journalism. The journalist (did) not report WHY the group recommends women wait until 50 yrs old to get a mammogram. The journalist did not report on profit incentives for recommending women start mammograms at 40.”
  • “A superficial story presenting one side and ignoring any math – false negatives, false positives, misdiagnoses….”
  • “I like Ms Wasserman Schultz and am glad for her good outcome, but it is absurd to extrapolate from her individual experience to all the women in the US.”
  • “I was very disappointed with the reporting on this story. Very unlike NPR to present a story completely one-sided. Was there a reason that NPR chose not to interview any of the members of the US preventive services task force? How about presenting the rationale for why screening women under 50 is not encouraged? The story did a disservice to women by not helping them understand the controversy, and certainly did not help the task force, who does a valient job objectively evaluating the evidence in the face of the hysteria of public opinion.”

If we once again allow news coverage of this issue to be dominated by politics – and by coverage that delivers a superficial thumbnail sketch of a scientific controversy – we will have done more harm to women and to all news consumers than anything we can do with mammograms or without them.

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Comments (4)

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April 27, 2015 at 2:48 pm

It is possible that the Task Force members were unable to comment due to policy. Several Government Departments require “One Voice” commentary and require any commentary to be approved. It is quite likely that the request for comment had not finished going through approvals and had not reached those who could be able to answer. This by itself adds to the lopsidedness of any story involving such departments.

    Gary Schwitzer

    April 27, 2015 at 2:59 pm


    That’s possibly the case, but I doubt it, because, as we saw in our roundup of stories on the USPSTF draft guidelines last week, task force members were interviewed and quoted.

    With this NPR story, it appears to be a choice to exclude USPSTF voices from the story.

    Liz Kato

    April 29, 2015 at 6:01 am

    The Task Force is an independent commission and not part of the government and not bound by government policy. They do not need anybody’s permission before speaking, so they must not have been asked.

Tazia K. Stagg

April 27, 2015 at 4:23 pm

In the Schultz anecdote, screening in the fifth decade didn’t help.
(She found a lump after a normal mammogram.)