These were some of the special elements of this column:
It can be better to be late and more complete than to be first and incomplete and imbalanced. Or it at least makes sense to do a next-day or next-week followup to provide context you couldn’t give on the day the news broke.
Many stories that reported on the National Lung Screening Trial a week earlier emphasized nothing but benefits of such screening. Read our earlier analysis of 8 stories on November 5.
This story took the time to step back and realize that there are harms of such screening – and they put it in the headline, in the third sentence, and throughout the story.
To report only the possible benefits is not complete.
We need more analysis such as this.
Good job on this. The story stated:
However, it could have also included at least a line about the costs of following testing and possible treatment of false positives.
Excellent. The story put the important number needed to screen in the third sentence of the story: “A major government study found the screening scans saved the life of one person for every 300 current or former smokers who were scanned.” It went on to explain “The study was stopped when it was found that the scanning group had a 20 percent lower risk of dying from lung cancer than those being screened with X-rays.”
It could have done so in absolute terms, not relative risk reduction, but overall it warrants a satisfactory score.
The story was clear on this:
In a rarity for such a story, “downsides” was even in the headline. The third paragraph read: “But now cancer and screening experts are worried that the limited findings will be used by private screening centers to promote the test to a broader group than was studied. That, in turn, could lead to thousands of unnecessary lung scans, causing excess radiation exposure and unnecessary biopsies and surgery.”
In clear language, the article explained key points about the study, including its limitations:
While the study found a benefit to scanning a specific group of high-risk smokers, that doesn’t mean other groups will get the same benefit.
Good job here as well. The quote from Dr. Otis Brawley of the American Cancer Society was key: “To take a trial that involves people at high risk for lung cancer and to extrapolate it and say it’s good for people with intermediate or low risk is not appropriate.”
Good sourcing – including quotes from one who promotes the scans and the study findings and from two who have concerns and are skeptical or worried about the impact.
The one comparison was the synopsis of the key study finding: “The smokers and former smokers were given either annual CT lung scans or chest X-rays. Compared with conventional X-rays, the CT, or computed tomography, scans create a detailed three-dimensional image of the lungs. The study was stopped when it was found that the scanning group had a 20 percent lower risk of dying from lung cancer than those being screened with X-rays.”
The availability of CT scanners to do lung cancer screening was clear from the story. More importantly, though, was the question of interpreting those scans – with questions raised in this excerpt about the problems even experienced radiologists at major cancer centers had:
The story explained that some were already promoting the study’s findings in news releases saying that the study “should once and for all settle the controversy” about whether CT lung scans save lives. But it quickly countered that claim with observations from Dr. Otis Brawley of the American Cancer Society who said that he was worried that the few early press releases and radio advertisements are just the beginning of widespread promotion of screening lung scans.
“It was sort of ominous to be working Sunday evening in my home office and this thing comes on the radio,” he said. “A lot of people run out when there is a new announcement and get the new test. We’re very frightened some people are going to be harmed because of this.”
This column did not rely on a news release.