Objectives The use of more medicalised labels can increase both concern about illness and the desire for more invasive treatment. We wrote an analysis article in The BMJ to consider the potential implications of removing the cancer label for low risk lesions where there is evidence of overdiagnosis and previous calls to replace the term cancer. The article generated a large amount of high-profile media coverage, nationally and internationally. This study analyses the media’s coverage of the article and aims to understand how to better communicate the message of low risk cancers and overdiagnosis to the public.
Methods A content analysis of the media coverage of our BMJ article proposing to ‘rename low risk conditions currently labelled as cancer’ was conducted. National and international media referring to the analysis article were identified by Isentia Media Portal and searched in Google in the month following publication and included in the analysis. Original articles and news stories were included with any duplicates excluded. Media headlines, full text articles/news stories and a random selection of open access public comments responding to the coverage were analysed to determine the main themes.
Results 45 original media articles and news stories across various media sources and their associated public comments were identified and accessible; including 19 online medical news sites/blogs, 12 online newspaper articles, 6 print newspaper articles, 3 TV stories, 2 academic media sites, 1 radio, 1 blog, and 1 online magazine. Overall, the media headlines focused on cancer generally and there was little mention of ‘low risk’, ‘overdiagnosis’ or ‘overtreatment’. A prominent theme in the headlines focused on doctors avoiding using the term cancer. The full media text/stories generally presented a more balanced view of the argument, albeit brief. However, preliminary analysis demonstrates that public responses tended to be more negative towards the idea of renaming low risk cancers and indicated confusion, with individuals thinking that the article was proposing for doctors to conceal a cancer diagnosis. Comments seemed to focus on the headlines rather than the full media text or story.
Conclusions The media coverage of calls to rename low risk cancers were varied with the headlines often misconstruing the underlying message. Preliminary analysis reveals that the link between low risk cancers and the harms associated with overdiagnosis and overtreatment did not seem to be passed onto the public. More thoughtful messaging about how to communicate similar topics to the public through the mainstream media is still needed.
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