Separating Hype From Hope: Breast Cancer Media Literacy

By Eleanor Edie Barrett & Susan Zager, BCAction Speakers Bureau Members

Breast cancer is a hot topic in many of our lives. Possible cures, screening techniques, and the negative and positive effects of various lifestyle choices on prevention or treatment are all discussed in the media in a seemingly unending barrage. A recent BCAction webinar, Separating Hype from Hope: Breast Cancer Media Literacy, offered interesting insights into how we can all become better consumers of media information when it comes to understanding the hype that swarms news about breast cancer, its treatment, and other aspects of the disease.

Webinar presenter Mandy Stahre, PhD, an epidemiologist and young breast cancer survivor, said that if you have breasts, in this society, you know you risk getting breast cancer. But despite all the hype, we need to critically evaluate the daily news and educate ourselves about what is not being discussed and why. As an epidemiologist, Stahre approaches news stories as both a survivor and a researcher. This combined background has taught her to have what she calls “healthy skepticism” when it comes to the media.

Gary Schwitzer, MD, the other presenter, is founder of the award-winning HealthNewsReview.org, a media newswatch organization that analyzes reporting on new medical procedures, drug treatments, and devices. Health News Review evaluates media according to a prescribed set of evaluation criteria. Switzer offered a report card of the “worst offenders in media” and demonstrated that of 1,900 health related articles over seven years, 60–70 percent of the stories fail to discuss costs, quantify potential benefits, quantify potential harms, and evaluate the quality of the evidence. Schwitzer’s examination of countless articles about cancer revealed that too often they paint a rosier-than-reality picture of new developments in treatment.

Both Stahre and Schwitzer strongly urged each of us to apply the same criteria to our own reading of health-related news. Such criteria can help us understand whether a given article discusses only relative benefits without discussing the actual number of real-life positive outcomes, whether or not harms are mentioned, quantified, and described by their severity. Also, they suggest, we search for evidence of disease mongering, i.e., turning normal human conditions such as aging into medical problems. Only by critically evaluating the content of articles can we hope to separate the hype that is presented as news from the truly helpful and informative.

The webinar concluded with ways advocates can get involved, including:

We risk drowning in the barrage of information that comes at us daily. One British writer cleverly identified a word to capture the overload of medical information: “infoxification” (information plus intoxication). Many of us are thirsty for a sip of the truth, according to Stahre and Schwitzer. We need to vigilantly evaluate the news and respond to inaccurate and poor coverage by demanding better reporting. This webinar gave us the tools to do exactly that.

You can watch this webinar and all of our past webinars on our website here

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