The surest way to reduce the risk of getting cancer is to stop smoking, avoid prolonged sun exposure, exercise regularly and eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables.
So why do so many Americans avoid this simple advice?
One answer to this medical stumper can be found in the field of journalism, according to Jeff Niederdeppe, Ph.D., an assistant professor of communication at Cornell University and formerly a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Health & Society Scholar at the University of Wisconsin (2006-2008).
In a study published online and in the June issue of the Journal of Communication, Niederdeppe finds that local television news audiences are more likely to hold confused, pessimistic beliefs about cancer prevention than those who do not watch local TV news. People who hold these kinds of beliefs are less likely to take proven steps to prevent cancer, he says.
So why are television news audiences more prone to fatalistic beliefs about cancer?
Local television news outlets tend to cover new and controversial scientific research rather than well-established medical information—and instead of re-telling the same old story about the dangers of smoking and too much sun exposure, local television news reporters often cover isolated studies that go against the grain of conventional medical wisdom.
Over Time, ‘Meta-Message’ Takes Toll on Viewers
Over time, these stories send a “meta-message” that cancer is lurking in hidden and unexpected places and can’t be easily prevented, Niederdeppe says.
Take the news story about a study showing that a growth agent found in some beef caused cancer cells to grow in a laboratory setting. Or the one about community concern over the potential but unsubstantiated cancer-causing effects of mold in schools. Or, Niederdeppe’s favorite, the report about the positive link between cancer and exercise (the opposite of what is generally known to be true).
All three ran on local television news stations in October 2002 and were among those Niederdeppe examined in his study.
Viewers can get a skewed picture of the causes of cancer from stories like these, partly because local TV news reporters are less likely than print reporters to explain the studies’ methodologies, put the conclusions in the larger context about proven cancer prevention methods, or provide viewers with adequate follow-up information. The skewed impression can cause fear and confusion about cancer causes and makes viewers dubious about proven cancer prevention methods like stopping smoking, staying out of the sun for long periods of time, reaching healthy weights and eating healthier diets.
“It’s not necessarily the impact of one particular story,” Niederdeppe says. “It’s the repeated tendency” to cover studies showing different conclusions.
So what can be done to change these behaviors?
To start, health care and communications advocates could implement journalism training programs to improve health coverage. Scientists could emphasize clear, actionable activities when discussing their research findings. And journalists could add more context to their stories, include information about study methodologies, reiterate messages about proven prevention methods, and encourage viewers to discuss health problems with their doctors.
“It would take a few seconds to place new findings in the context of what we already know,” Niederdeppe says.