| Mainstream Media Coverage Of Breast
Cancer Continues To Ignore Prevention
News coverage of breast
cancer focuses too much on treatments and not enough on prevention,
a trend that could prove risky in the long run for many women,
say researchers at Michigan State University.
An MSU analysis of national media's coverage of the disease found
that over a two-year period, 31 percent of the 231 stories that
appeared in some of the country's top newspapers, magazines and
television networks focused on treatment, while only 18 percent
looked at prevention.
The research paper, titled "A Comprehensive Analysis of Breast
Cancer News Coverage in Leading Media Outlets Focusing on Environmental
Risks and Prevention," is published in the latest edition of the
Journal of Health Communication.
"What we're concerned about is people will think, 'well, the
scientists are going to come up with a cure, so we don't need
to worry about prevention,'" said Charles Atkin, one of the authors
of the study and a University Distinguished Professor of communication
at MSU. "I think this emphasis on treatment, especially so-called
breakthroughs, may lead to complacency."
In 2003 and 2004, Atkin and colleagues analyzed breast-cancer
coverage in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, USA Today,
Time, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, NBC Nightly News,
ABC World News Tonight and the CBS Evening News.
The researchers found that by a two-to-one margin, the news stories
focused more on narratives - personal stories of cancer patients
- rather than on data and statistics. And, said Atkin, while this
can provide more compelling stories for readers and viewers, it
doesn't do much to help further the cause of cancer prevention.
"The biggest single type of story was about breast cancer treatment,
and narratives lend themselves much better to that kind of story,"
he said. "Stories about prevention, about people exercising and
eating right, just don't make great copy."
While many of the factors that can lead to breast cancer are
beyond one's control - such as family history and age - there
are many steps people can take to reduce their risk of breast,
or any other type of cancer, including diet, exercise and avoidance
of certain substances in the environment that are known to contribute
to breast cancer.
Environmental risks are broadly defined as contaminants in the
air, ground or items we come in contact with; pharmaceuticals;
and lifestyle practices.
The research also found that of the stories that focused on environmental
risk factors for breast cancer, about 12 percent discussed the
use of hormone replacement therapy. Recent research finds there
may be a link between HRT and breast cancer.
Other risk factors covered in these stories included the use
of certain pharmaceuticals, obesity, exposure to chemical contaminants
and pesticides, diet, tobacco use and exposure to second-hand
"The media," Atkin said, "really underrepresent the risks involving
lifestyle and the prevention activities people can make."
Also lacking were stories about the role parents can play in
helping their children prevent breast cancer.
"Advice to parents on how they should be raising their daughters
in terms of diet and exercise was completely ignored," said Sandi
Smith, study co-author who is with MSU's Health and Risk Communication
Center. "There were no stories at all."
Atkin said media awareness of promoting cancer-prevention techniques
"The media in general have a large influence on what women believe
is risky and what they learn about how to prevent breast cancer,"
he said. "Some ongoing studies are finding that the media, along
with friends and family members, are more influential than even
The research was funded by the National Cancer Institute and
the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.