The Media and Cancer Myths: Cause or Cure?

Dr Helen Jamison is Deputy Director of the Science Media Centre, an independent press office helping to ensure the public have access to the best scientific evidence and expertise through the news media when science hits the headlines.

Enter the word “cancer” into any internet search engine and you will be bombarded by results. Switch on the television or open your daily newspaper and the effect is the same: hundreds of articles about cancer, its causes and cures, the latest scare or breakthrough. Cancer is one of the media’s most popular subjects, but this can often lead to confusion for the public.

At first glance, many news stories appear oversimplified (does coffee cure or cause cancer?), and experts may be wary of engaging as a result; especially when it’s controversial and seems easier to stay out of it.

Waiting for the story to subside, however, rarely works and often allows myths to go unchallenged. As one seasoned communications expert reminded us recently, silence is toxic.

The science community is engaging more openly with the media than ever before, but I remain cautious. The theme of this year’s World Cancer Day – dispelling damaging myths – gives us a chance to reflect on where there is still more to do.

The recent tragic story of Neon Roberts is a case in point. Despite a decade of encouraging scientists of the need to engage, the SMC struggled to keep up with the interview requests we received from journalists.

It’s obviously a little more complicated than that – there are good reasons why some couldn’t comment and there were others who did drop everything to help out – but by and large we found ourselves with a vacuum that was hard to fill.

The result was a lost opportunity. Not to talk about an individual case, but to talk to the media and public about cancer research and treatments, what we know and what we do not; to give a broader view on the current state of evidence, and, perhaps most importantly, to dispel many myths.

Continued engagement between scientists and the media is crucial. We cannot simply assume that members of the public, including patients and their families, will always accept established scientific opinion.

Engaging with the media may feel like the last thing many experts or organisations want to do, but at the SMC we see it as an opportunity rather than a threat. That opportunity, however, also comes with the responsibility that experts and their press offices work hard to ensure their media work and comments are measured and accurate. It is admittedly a tricky balancing act, but it’s essential that cancer research is not exaggerated – stories that raise false hope are just as damaging as those that cause fear.

The good news is that we now have a huge amount of evidence that not only is media engagement often a very enjoyable experience, it’s absolutely clear that when you put the best scientists and science journalists in a room, the standard of reporting that results is extremely high.

In the UK we have some excellent science journalists, and, at a time when the media itself faces an uncertain future, we should be doing whatever we can to work with the specialist reporters we are lucky to have.

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