The Media's Cancer "Epidemic"

The Media's Cancer "Epidemic"

WHERE YOU STAND ON THE NATION'S CANCER RISKS, as the saying goes, apparently depends on where you sit. A new report from a media research group finds that cancer experts and the press have vastly different concerns with regard to the environmental causes of cancer. Partly for that reason, those same cancer experts give the media low marks when it comes to keeping the public informed about genuine health risks.

"These results suggest that the media fail to convey expert assessment of the environmental cancer risks to the general public," said S. Robert Lichter of the Washington-based Center for Media and Public Affairs in testimony before a House sub-committee. He added that the views of experts are, "an invaluable resource for policy makers and individual citizens concerned with minimizing health risks in a complex environment. If the media fail to convey those views, the information environment can be hazardous to our health."

In particular, the study, "Scientific Opinion vs. Media Coverage of Environmental Cancer," released in July, found that media reports focused far more often on alleged man-made causes of cancer -- chemicals, pollution, food additives and so on -- than on tobacco use, dietary habits and sunlight, risks that concerned health experts. Just 22 percent of the experts surveyed considered The New York Times a very reliable source of information on cancer causes. Weekly news magazines like Time, Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report won similar approval from just nine percent of those surveyed. Network television news was judged as very reliable by just six percent of the experts surveyed.

To conduct this study, the Center for Media and Public Affairs -- joined by the Center for Science, Technology & Media in Washington, the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut and the Center for the Study of Social Change at Smith College -- randomly surveyed 400 members of the American Association for Cancer Research during January and February 1993. The researchers were asked to rate specific substances or general parts of the environment as to their contribution to cancer rates in the U.S. (At the time of the survey, some 92 percent of the scientists were involved in studies regarding the causes or prevention of cancer. A majority of them had published 50 or more articles on these topics in peer-reviewed journals.)

Researchers then compared the survey results to the cancer coverage of nine major media outlets -- ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts; Time, Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report; and front-page stories from The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal -- from 1972 through 1992. Ultimately, the sample included 1,147 news items, including 794 television stories, 54 news magazine pieces and 299 newspaper articles.

The differences are telling. Almost unanimously (by 96 percent) the scientists surveyed declared tobacco a major cause of cancer. Another 54 percent considered sunlight a major cause of cancer, and 50 percent put diet in the same category. A plurality, 42 percent, considered environmental tobacco smoke a major factor in cancer incidence, and 37 percent said the same about exposure to chemicals in the work place.

But the agent of cancer causation cited most often in news stories, according to the media center survey, was man-made chemicals. Of the 498 references the study found, 304 said man-made chemicals were affirmed causes of cancer, and 194 referred to them as "suspected" causes of cancer. Tobacco, including environmental tobacco smoke, ranked a distant second with 292 citations. Sunlight, ranked second by scientists, ranked thirteenth in media references with 134 citations. Dietary choices, researchers' third major concern, was twelfth in media listings with 136 citations.

So what were the media concerned about? Man-made products. Food additives ranked third on the media list with 273 mentions. (If the 38 references to second-hand smoke from the tobacco category were excluded, food additives would have ranked as the second-largest media concern.) Hormones as

Article copyright American Council on Science and Health, Inc.


By Kenneth Smith

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