Modern media play very prominent role in our lives, whether we like it or not. The influence they have goes well beyond the apparent as teams of marketers and advertisers make sure, that everything what is published serves particular role. There is no doubt that we are being manipulated in one way or the other if we consume media in any form or shape these days. 

That is not saying, that public or social media may not play positive role in our lives too. Great example of that may be in the field of medical information dissemination for purpose of empowering people and improving their choices in the maze of modern health care. 

This article will deal with the positives and negatives of media influence in field of cancer management. 

Every day now there appear some news about cancer in any of multiple platforms of media, be it in print, radio, TV or various internet based outlets such as facebook, twitter, Instragram or similar. Cancer is still very sensitive subject, even in times of major improvements of treatments and millions of people living good life even with cancer in sort of chronic disease status just like many other medical conditions. 

These media outlets aggressively compete for people’s attention and as our attention span shortens and our insensitivity to various news increases, they simply have to up the ante to grab our focus. This is in principle the reason, why there are so many “sensational” news, “breakthroughs”, “cancer cures”, “miracles” and other many superlatives splashed across our TV screens, phones, tablets, newspapers and magazines all the time. 

Medical news, and in particular news regarding cancer are true challenge in the age of information. They have potential to influence decisions and result in positive or negative outcome. The public depends on true, balanced and well presented news on medical progress, but as ample data suggest, this is often not happening at present. 

Where are then major pitfalls of modern media reporting on cancer?

The first, potentially most damaging phenomenon is overreporting. The fantastic, miraculous and space age treatments reported are most commonly just that. Fantastic, utopic dreams in realms of science fiction. They are often based on early research promise which is in best scenario years prior to any true and sustained benefit documented and premature implementation of these methods can lead to severe side effects and fatal outcome. 

The next one is probably lack of enthusiasm to report slow, incremental, imperfect but great progress, such as the fact that the mortality from cancer is steadily falling since 1990’s. 

For example, the death rate in USA from cancer fell by 25% between 1991 and 2014. That is not a small achievement, however, it has gone mostly unreported in media. 

The other problem is poor understanding of statistics by general population. As we all know, the statistics is complex and difficult subject to understand and can be easily used in manipulative way. It can also be misinterpreted by journalists, who generally do not understand statistics well. The result can be total disconnect from facts with all potentially harmful consequences. 

One of last factors to be considered is the fact that generally speaking the quality of journalism is dramatically falling, the employment in this field is plummeting and the pressure on remaining journalists by their editors and publishers is so great, that they are willing to publish whatever grabs the attention, be it correct or not. There are many well documented examples of this fact in our recent history. As the democratisation of media with internet penetration continues, literally anybody can be a “journalist” and publish whatever they like to share. It is then clear, why the search for true and proper information is confusing, disorientating and reminiscent of a mine field. There is total loss of proper gate keepers on the information in modern times. There is nobody checking whether whatever we are reading is true, correct and safe information in our best interest. 

There are so many other factors well beyond scope of this article. The major fact is that manipulation of our views by marketers, advertisers and social engineers is truly universal now. It is always up to us to be aware of this and navigate or life accordingly. 

Another example of potentially beneficial or harmful effect of media is reporting experiences with cancer by celebrities. We must understand that every person is unique and every situation even with the same cancer type is different. What did work for them may not at all work for us. Many negative effects of unreasonable publicity involving celebrities has been well documented with massive sways in public opinion due to lack of critical thinking about the media coverage. 

So what can be done in this field to improve our understanding of medical media coverage?

The reporting should be transparent, scientific evidence based, true with disclosure of potential conflicts of interests of involved parties. 

Prior to the release of particular news, the facts should be verified by educated, credentialed and trusted leaders in that particular professional field. 

Journalists reporting on medicine and cancer, should obtain sound basic understanding of biology, medicine and statistics, so they can at least have some basic idea whether the topic they are going to cover is realistic and worth reporting. 

It would be beneficial to re-establish some degree of gate keeping for medical and cancer information being published by reputable media, so that the patients, their families and carers have a degree of certainty that the information they are reading is accurate, correct and safe. 

It is not clear, how this field is going to develop in foreseeable future. It may go both ways and as such meanwhile we must be vigilant and critical when reading any medical news or cancer news. We must try to verify the facts from multiple sources and angles to avoid potential harm and adverse choices. 

The professionals treating cancer are well educated, trained, credentialed and regulated in Australia and there is no better solution than to discuss all media acquired information with them. 

That improves the trust and respect in both the patients and their doctors. It minimises potential harm and inferior outcome of the treatment. That is the only way to achieve the superior result based on the best and most recent scientific information available.