B186: Living on benefits: How cancer screening is portrayed in the national press
1University College London, London, UK
Overdiagnosis is an inevitable part of cancer screening; however public awareness of it is low. The media could play vital role in informing the public.
This study aims to investigate whether coverage of cancer screening by national newspapers gives a balanced account of the possible benefits and harms of screening.
We searched for articles on cancer screening in English newspapers from April 2014 to March 2015. We counted the number of harms and benefits mentioned in each article to assess whether the article gave balanced or skewed view. We examined the lay gist (captured from the headline and first ten sentences); and expert gist (captured by the indicators in the whole article).
Out of 1,744 articles assessed, 250 met the inclusion criteria. Of these, 101 in the lay gist and 38 in the expert gist had no mention of benefits or harms. In the lay gist, only 7% of articles were balanced, 72% were skewed towards benefits and 21% skewed towards harms. In the expert gist, 16% of articles were balanced, 53% were skewed towards benefits and 32% were skewed towards harms. Of the cancer sites, only articles on prostate cancer were skewed towards harms. Overall, 64% (160/250) of the articles covered at least one indicator of benefit and 43% (107/250) had at least one indicator of harm.
Saving lives (n=92) and early detection (n=73) were the most commonly reported benefits of screening. Of the harms overdiagnosis was covered only in 43 (17%), and false findings in 50 (20%) articles.
Newspaper articles emphasise the benefits of screening, while rarely giving balanced account of the potential benefits and harms. Coverage of overdiagnosis is limited.
The scientific community may need to work with the media to present the public with more balanced information on cancer screening.