PHILADELPHIA – News coverage of aggressive cancer treatments may give the public unrealistic hope that these treatments actually work. Additionally, news about treatment failure, adverse events, and end-of-life care are covered far less by the news media.

These are some of the findings of a study by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania.  The team looked at news stories about cancer that were reported in major news magazines and large city daily newspapers. Their findings showed:

  • Although 32 percent of the articles focused on survival, only 8 percent covered death and dying; this despite the fact that half of all cancer patients will die of their illness.
  • While most stories discussed aggressive cancer treatments, almost none (2 percent) discussed end-of-life, palliative or hospice care.
  • 13 percent reported that aggressive cancer treatments can fail, and just 30 percent reported that aggressive treatments can result in adverse effects.

The study, its methodology and results are reported in the March 22 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine.  The research team was led by Penn Medicine’s Jessica Fishman, Ph.D.; Thomas Ten Have, Ph.D.; and David Casarett, MD, MA. The article “Cancer and the Media: How Does the News Report on Treatment and Outcomes?” noted “very few news reports about cancer discuss death and dying, and even those that do generally do not mention palliative and hospice care.”

The study notes that unrealistic optimism is presented in most stories about cancer treatment, when in reality half of all cancer patients do not survive, according to statistics from the American Cancer Society.

“The nation’s leading media institutions have set a low bar for routine coverage of the nation’s long-running war on cancer. Hype is the norm,” wrote medical author Merrill Goozner, MS, in a commentary accompanying the article.  “The relationship between journalism and medical researchers has been called a complicit collaboration in which both benefit from sensationalized stories.  Recent media cutbacks and the evolution of a hyper speed news cycle only made things worse.”

“The tendency of the news to report on aggressive cancer treatments and survival, but not on alternatives, is … noteworthy given that unrealistic information may mislead the public about the trade-offs between attempts at heroic cures and hospice care,” the authors of the study wrote.

The trio looked at a random sample of 436 articles from a total of 2, 228 stories that appeared in the news from 2005 to 2007. Using databases such as Lexis-Nexis, they examined cancer-related stories in Newsweek, Parade, People, Redbook, and Time magazines; the Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Tribune, Daily Herald-Chicago, the New York Daily News, the New York Post, The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Philadelphia Daily News. The selection of newspapers and magazines was based on previous research indicating that print publications were the most likely sources for this type of information.

“The absence of reporting about hospice and palliative care is significant given the numerous well-documented benefits for patients and family members,” the authors wrote. “For many patients with cancer, it is important to know (this) … because it can help them make decisions that realistically reflect their prognosis and the risks and potential benefits of treatment.”

The full article is available online. The study was supported in part by research funds from the Center of Excellence in Cancer Communication Research at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, and from the American Cancer Society.

Penn Medicine is one of the world's leading academic medical centers, dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, and excellence in patient care. Penn Medicine consists of the Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (founded in 1765 as the nation's first medical school) and the University of Pennsylvania Health System, which together form a $5.3 billion enterprise.

The Perelman School of Medicine has been ranked among the top five medical schools in the United States for the past 18 years, according to U.S. News & World Report's survey of research-oriented medical schools. The School is consistently among the nation's top recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health, with $373 million awarded in the 2015 fiscal year.

The University of Pennsylvania Health System's patient care facilities include: The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and Penn Presbyterian Medical Center -- which are recognized as one of the nation's top "Honor Roll" hospitals by U.S. News & World Report -- Chester County Hospital; Lancaster General Health; Penn Wissahickon Hospice; and Pennsylvania Hospital -- the nation's first hospital, founded in 1751. Additional affiliated inpatient care facilities and services throughout the Philadelphia region include Chestnut Hill Hospital and Good Shepherd Penn Partners, a partnership between Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network and Penn Medicine.

Penn Medicine is committed to improving lives and health through a variety of community-based programs and activities. In fiscal year 2015, Penn Medicine provided $253.3 million to benefit our community.

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