Study: How Our Alarmist TV News Makes People Overly Paranoid About Cancer

Personal Health

Coming up on Action News at 11: Man arrested in fatal stabbing! Huge winter storm approaches!

And in our health segment: Pretty much everything causes cancer, and there’s nothing you can do about it!

That’s the troubling subtext viewers seem to be picking up from local television newscasts. Two newly published research papers suggest a regular diet of health coverage provided by your hometown news team may inspire fatalistic beliefs about cancer prevention.

By focusing on shocking new studies that reveal a “novel or controversial” potential cause of the disease, local television news tends “to cultivate the belief that everything causes cancer,” a research team led by Cornell University’s Jeff Niederdeppe writes in the Journal of Communication. This belief, which can lead to health-threatening behaviors, seems to infect both well-educated and less-educated viewers.

Niedereppe and his colleagues conducted two studies, the first of which compared the ways local television news and daily newspapers cover cancer. Using data from the University of Wisconsin’s NewsLab, the researchers examined late-evening newscasts on 122 stations across the country in October 2002. They also analyzed cancer-related stories in major newspapers from each of the nation’s top 50 media markets in late 2002 and early 2003.

“Local TV news stories were more likely than newspaper stories to focus on and discuss causes of cancer, more likely to discuss scientific research findings, and less likely to include information that would allow viewers to follow up by seeking out additional resources, guidance or advice regarding the coverage they watched,” they write.

In other words, TV reports were often along the lines of “new study says cell phones cause cancer,” which gave viewers a fear-based jolt, but provided little context about the disease.

Their second study, using data from the 2005 Annenberg National Health Communications Survey, compared participants’ news viewing habits with their level of agreement with two statements: “It seems like almost everything causes cancer” and “There are so many recommendations about preventing cancer, it’s hard to know which ones to follow.”

The results: Using two different models (including one that controlled for various demographic factors), they found “local TV news viewing was positively associated with the index of fatalistic beliefs about cancer prevention.”

follow-up paper, recently published in the journal Communication Research, reaches a similar conclusion. Chul-joo Lee of The Ohio State University and Niederdeppe analyzed data from that same Annenberg survey, this time looking at effects of television viewing over time.

More than 400 people were surveyed in the spring of 2005, and again one year later. They answered questions on a variety of subjects, including their education level, health fears and television viewing habits. Their level of fatalism regarding cancer was again measured using their answer to the aforementioned two questions.

“We found a positive association between overall TV viewing at Time I and increased fatalistic beliefs about cancer prevention at Time II (one year later),” they report. “Analyses also provided evidence that local TV news viewing at Time I predicts increased fatalistic beliefs about cancer prevention at Time II.”

They add that viewing national newscasts did not produce this effect, and that there was “little evidence for reverse causation” -- that is, for the notion that people who have a fatalistic attitude toward cancer tend to watch more television.

“It may be that overall TV viewing cultivates a state that is characterized by a sense of low control over one’s life,” Lee and Niederdeppe write. “Fatalistic beliefs about cancer prevention may simply represent a topic-specific manifestation of a low sense of self-control.”

In any case, when it comes to cancer, beliefs matter. A 2007 study in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention reported that “Americans who hold fatalistic beliefs about cancer prevention may be at greater risk of cancer because they are less likely to engage in various prevention behaviors,” including getting screened for cancer, eating fruits and vegetables, and exercising regularly.

Lee and Niederdeppe conclude by suggesting scientists and educators might want to give local newscasters a nudge.

“Researchers and public health officials might consider conducting educational or training sessions with local TV journalists to report on cancer in a way that minimizes the likelihood of developing fatalistic beliefs,” they write. Specifically, reporters should be encouraged to provide “appropriate caveats to new research on cancer causes,” and to emphasize “evidence-based recommendations for cancer prevention.”

While such informational sessions would surely be helpful, decisions on which stories run are inevitably made with ratings in mind. Perhaps TV news directors addicted to scare-mongering health coverage should emulate a surgeon dealing with a tumor, and just cut it out.

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