This study investigated whether coverage of cancer screening by national newspapers gives a balanced account of the possible benefits and harms of screening. The interesting results are produced in attractive graphic (pictorial/comic strip) form.
( With regard to breast screening: despite a huge accumulation of evidence showing harms of breast screening outweigh benefits, including results of the UK Independent Review, few women I meet seem aware of this, or have any understanding of ‘overdiagnosis’ – ‘detection of a cancerous lesion through screening that would otherwise not have caused any symptoms or early death’ – (Welch HG, Black WC. Overdiagnosis in Cancer, J Natl Cancer Inst 2010). And no wonder!
This ignorance of the harms, and unjustified view of the benefits of breast screening is not surprising since few lay women regularly access medical journals: the public relies on information in the national press and from the NHS Breast Screening Programme. For years we have been told ‘screening saves lives’. Despite new understanding of breast cancer, and despite all the research evidence which shows lack of benefit and level of harms, it must be very difficult to scrap that message and offer a truthful picture, especially when jobs and a whole industry is dependent on sufficient numbers of women being screened. So how can women who do not have access to full information make an informed decision about participation in breast screening programmes – ie regular screening of women who have no breast symptoms?)
Of the types of cancer articles investigated, only articles on prostate cancer were skewed towards harm.
The study concluded:
‘Newspaper articles emphasise the benefits of screening, while rarely giving balanced account of the potential benefits and harms. Coverage of overdiagnosis is limited.’
Annals graphic Medicine: Living on Benefits: How Cancer Screening is Portrayed in the UK National Press. Jack W Bedeman, Susanne F Meisel, Nora Pashayan.
Ann Intern Med. 2016;164(9):W13-W14. doi:10.7326/G15-0019