The link between having a good understanding of your health and of disease (health literacy) and health outcomes is well documented (Berkman et al., 2011). However, access to accurate and unbiased information is required for the public to be able to accurately assess their health risks. A recent study by Jensen et al. (2014) sought to investigate the link between media coverage of cancer and public perceptions of how common certain cancers were in the US. They further investigated how media coverage of cancer affected federal funding of cancer research.
To do this, researchers recruited 400 members of the public in Indiana, and asked them to rank the top 15 most common cancers in the US from most to least prevalent. Respondents were also asked about how often they read the news, and what proportion was from print, television or online.
While participants ranked most cancers fairly accurately, the prevalence of blood and pancreatic cancer were significantly overestimated, while those of male reproductive, lymphatic and bladder cancers were underestimated. This difference in perception mirrored differences in news coverage of these cancers, and participants who were greater news consumers were more likely to incorrectly rank the list of cancers.
A similar pattern was seen when comparing news coverage with federal funding awarded to the National Cancer Institute in 2011. Breast, blood and brain cancers receive disproportionately high press coverage, and each received more the double the amount of funding than expected if funds were awarded proportionally to incidence rates. Conversely, bladder, kidney, thyroid and stomach cancers receive a disproportionately low amount of press coverage and received between 10-fold and 3-fold less funding than expected by incidence rate.
The most negatively affected cancer was bladder cancer, which is the 6th most common cancer in the US, was ranked least common by the public, receives ten-fold less funding than expected, and was the most under-reported cancer compared to its incidence rate. Furthermore, although the public accurately ranked kidney cancer as being the 9th most common malignancy in the US, it receives 3-fold reduction in federal funding than expected and is disproportionately under-reported in the press. This shows that the media can have a massive effect on both the public perception of cancer and on government funding.
The reasons for disproportional reporting on cancers are myriad. For example, some cancers are inherently more attention-grabbing than others. Comparing bladder and blood cancers, bladder cancers tend to affect older Caucasian males in their 60s and 70s, whereas blood cancers are more likely to affect children and young adults, and are often life-threatening (Jemal et al., 2010, Madeb and Messing, 2004). Simplification of scientific findings for clarity may also be a factor – for example “smoking causes lung, mouth, throat and kidney cancer” becomes “smoking causes lung cancer.”
Certain patient advocacy groups – for example, breast cancer charities – have historically been much better than others at raising awareness and engaging the press, meaning that these cancers will be more likely to be covered in the news. Additionally, an initial small funding distortion in favour of a particular cancer could become amplified by a virtuous circle: increased funding means an increased rate of discovery, which leads to more news coverage and increased public awareness, which leads to further financial investment as this area of research is known to be flourishing.
This may explain why, in 2011, breast cancer alone received a quarter of the total federal funding spent on all of the top 15 cancers put together, and more than double that spent on male reproductive cancers, despite male reproductive cancers being the most common cancer in the US and breast cancer being the second most common.
Although this study was US-specific, it is likely that this effect occurs in other countries too. In a survey of 67 science journalists from the UK, US, Canada, Asia and Europe, 50% stated that public interest was their primary motivation in choosing which cancer story to write, making it the most influential factor in topic choice (Aggarwal et al., 2014).
The media clearly have a lot of power in affecting both the public perception of cancer and federal funding of research. Currently public awareness and/or federal funding of bladder, kidney, thyroid and stomach cancers is low due to disproportionately low coverage in the media. The media have a responsibility to re-dress this balance, as it will increase the amount of funding available for research, and it will make the public more aware of these cancers and their symptoms. This would hopefully lead to more cases being prevented, and improved diagnosis and treatment rates for those cases that are unavoidable.
- Aggarwal A, Batura R, & Sullivan R (2014). The media and cancer: education or entertainment? An ethnographic study of European cancer journalists. Ecancermedicalscience, 8 PMID: 24834118
- Berkman ND, Sheridan SL, Donahue KE, Halpern DJ, & Crotty K (2011). Low health literacy and health outcomes: an updated systematic review. Annals of internal medicine, 155 (2), 97-107 PMID: 21768583
- Jemal A, Siegel R, Xu J, & Ward E (2010). Cancer statistics, 2010. CA: a cancer journal for clinicians, 60 (5), 277-300 PMID:20610543
- Jensen JD, Scherr CL, Brown N, Jones C, Christy K, & Hurley RJ (2014). Public estimates of cancer frequency: cancer incidence perceptions mirror distorted media depictions. Journal of health communication, 19 (5), 609-24 PMID: 24446814
- Madeb R, & Messing EM (2004). Gender, racial and age differences in bladder cancer incidence and mortality. Urologic oncology, 22 (2), 86-92 PMID: 15082003