Cancer receives a great deal of news media attention. Although approximately half of all US patients with cancer die of their illness or of related complications, it is unknown whether reports in the news media reflect this reality.
To determine how cancer news coverage reports about cancer care and outcomes, we conducted a content analysis of US cancer news reporting in 8 large-readership newspapers and 5 national magazines. Trained coders determined the proportion of articles reporting about cancer survival, cancer death and dying, aggressive cancer treatment, cancer treatment failure, adverse events of cancer treatment, and end-of-life palliative or hospice care.
Of 436 articles about cancer, 140 (32.1%; 95% confidence interval [CI], 28%-37%) focused on survival and only 33 (7.6 %; 5%-10%) focused on death and dying (P < .001, χ2 test). Only 57 articles (13.1%; 10%-17%) reported that aggressive cancer treatments can fail, and 131 (30.0%; 26%-35%) reported that aggressive treatments can result in adverse events. Although most articles (249 of 436 [57.1%]; 95% CI, 52%-62%) discussed aggressive treatments exclusively, almost none (2 of 436; [0.5%]; 0%-2%) discussed end-of-life palliative or hospice care exclusively (P < .001, χ2 test), and only a few (11 of 436 [2.5%]; 1%-6%) discussed aggressive treatment and end-of-life care.
News reports about cancer frequently discuss aggressive treatment and survival but rarely discuss treatment failure, adverse events, end-of-life care, or death. These portrayals of cancer care in the news media may give patients an inappropriately optimistic view of cancer treatment, outcomes, and prognosis.