Local TV news promotes confusion, anxiety about cancer

NiederdeppeNiederdeppe

The more local TV news people watch, the more they feel powerless against cancer, according to a new study.

These are among the findings of Jeff Niederdeppe, assistant professor of communication in Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and Chul-Joo Lee of Ohio State University, in a new study published online by the journal Communication Research.

"People who are confused or hold fatalistic beliefs are less likely to engage in a variety of behaviors that we know could reduce their risk of cancer: exercising regularly, eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, avoiding cigarette smoking and minimizing excessive sun exposure," Niederdeppe said. "We became concerned that these beliefs had public health consequences."

Why do local stations harp on cancer? "Cancer is a topic that is highly feared and one that, admittedly, we don’t have all the answers for," Niederdeppe said. "More than half of Americans say they’re scared of cancer, but scientists estimate that about 50 percent of cancer is preventable by living healthy lives. This uncertainty about the other half of cancer cases is a source of anxiety for many people."

In a previous national survey, Niederdeppe and his colleagues found that despite evidence that many cancer deaths are preventable, a substantial proportion of American adults hold fatalistic beliefs about cancer prevention. About half of Americans agreed with the statement, "It seems like everything causes cancer"; more than a quarter said, "there’s not much you can do to prevent cancer;"and three-quarters said, "there are so many cancer recommendations that it’s hard to know which to follow."

In their current study, Niederdeppe and Lee followed people for a year and asked about their news consumption and beliefs about cancer. While local TV news leads to a growth in fatalistic beliefs over time, the researchers found, there is little evidence of a reverse pattern, suggesting a causal relationship. In other words, people who watch a lot of local TV are more likely to hold these beliefs which, with fatalism about cancer, increase over time. The study suggests local TV news is more likely to cause these beliefs among its viewers, rather than viewers with these beliefs seeking out local news.

"Local TV news is much more likely than newspapers to talk about cancer causes as opposed to treatment or prevention," Niederdeppe said. "It was likely to report on research, mostly of new studies, rather than focus on established, concrete recommendations. It provided little follow-up information that would allow the viewer to learn more about that study and weigh that evidence in his or her own mind."

Niederdeppe is working to identify steps -- such as thorough citation, the use of appropriate caveats and follow-up reporting -- to mitigate harmful presentation of cancer information on TV that can be used to train journalists.

"We’ve identified a public health issue," he said. "Now the work is to try to understand how we could do a better job in news by covering cancer causes and prevention in a way that reduces confusion. News about cancer causes will continue to be something people are interested in, and I think it’s something we should be concerned about getting right."

Funding for Niederdeppe’s work came from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.