Is media coverage of breast cancer screening recommendations doing women a disservice?

Over the last several years, most media coverage of breast cancer screening recommendations has focused on conflict and controversy, according to a new study published in Women’s Health Issues. What does this mean for women when the time comes to schedule screening for themselves?

The study’s authors noted the American Cancer Society (ACS), U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and American College of Radiology (ACR) are just some of the organizations that have published screening recommendations. The groups’ recommendations lack consistency, however, which can make it hard for women to know what to do—and the media often makes things even more confusing.

“These shifting mammography recommendations have garnered substantial media attention, but analyses of media coverage typically focus on a single event (i.e., a new recommendation by an expert panel or professional organization),” wrote lead author Rebekah H. Nagler, PhD, Hubbard School of Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, and colleagues. “Content analyses of these individual events suggest that coverage often emphasizes expert disagreement over screening and, particularly in the case of the 2009 USPSTF recommendation, dramatizes the conflict. In some instances, news stories have reported uncertainty about whether women in their 40s should undergo screening, whereas in other instances coverage has been unbalanced (with a majority of stories opposed to the new recommendations) and sometimes misleading.”

Nagler et al. wanted to explore how media coverage of these breast cancer screening recommendations has evolved from 2009 to 2016, assessing more than 350 stories from local and national televised news. They focused on four key USPSTF announcements from November 2009, April 2015, October 2015 and January 2016.  

A focus on conflict and controversy was persistent in local and national televised news coverage over the years, the authors found, and the risks and benefits of screening are not given equal time. In addition, the authors determined coverage did improve as time went on—but it was still far from perfect.

“Comparing the 2009 with the 2015–2016 USPSTF coverage, results suggest that the accuracy of coverage generally improved,” the authors wrote. “However, many stories continued to refer incorrectly to the task force as a government panel. This description is concerning, because it could trigger processes known as motivated reasoning: When messages include political cues (e.g., reference to a panel as a government entity), this can increase the likelihood that those messages will be processed in filtered or biased ways, consistent with one's prior beliefs and values.”

The authors noted more research is needed to truly understand how this media coverage impacts women, but continued exposure to such messages of conflict and controversy “could influence women’s decision making around screening and trust in cancer prevention recommendations.”

“Strategies are needed to better equip all women (and particularly underserved women) to negotiate mammography controversy and weigh the benefits and risks of screening,” they concluded.