Unbalanced Mammography Media Coverage Focuses on Benefits, Downplays Harms

April 7, 2021
Whitney J. Palmer

More than 60 percent of news stories, including those discussing screening mammography, only highlight the potential benefits of testing.

Media coverage of screening tests worldwide is not necessarily balanced, a new study has found. While news reports herald the benefits of these exams, they do not always point out the downsides – the potential for over-diagnosis or conflicts of interest.

In a research letter published this week in JAMA Internal Medicine, a team of experts from Australia and the United Kingdom discussed how the media approaches conveying details about screening services. For their analysis, they looked at more than 1,100 medical news stories, nearly half of which were on the use of 3D mammography for breast cancer screening.

Based on their evaluation, the team, led by Mary O’Keefe, Ph.D., from the Institute for Musculoskeletal Health at Sydney Local Health District and the University of Sydney, determined that more than 60 percent of stories, including those from newspapers, television, podcasts, and blogs, only presented the benefits of screening.

These results point to a need for better reporting that can give the public more well rounded information about these tests, including the benefits and harms that can present, the team said.

“Strategies to improve media reporting so that professionals, patients, and the public receive more balanced information about early detection tests are urgently needed,” they said. “Higher quality reporting by journalists could encourage more healthy skepticism toward health options and curb over-diagnosis.”

Specifically, O’Keefe’s team examined 1,173 news stories published between 2016 and 2019. The articles discussed several topics, such as artificial intelligence, biopsy exams, blood biomarker tests, and Apple Watch electrocardiogram, with 579 focusing on 3D mammography. Their analysis showed 63 percent of stories discussed only screening benefits while 27 percent mentioned, but downplayed, potential harms, and 13 percent mentioned over-diagnosis.

The team also found that approximately half of stories incorporated input from sources who had conflicts of interest. However, only 12 percent of stories revealed such conflicts.

In an invited commentary accompanying the study, Tiffany Doherty, Ph.D., and Aaron Carroll, M.D., MS, from the Indiana University School of Medicine, said this lack of balanced reporting can pose particular risk for women between ages 40 and 49 who need routine screening mammography, noting such an exam is not supported by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.

But, presenting information about mammography screening can be complicated, they acknowledged.

“The harms include false-positive results, unnecessary biopsies, and over-diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer that would not have become a health threat if left undetected,” they said, pointing about that the exams are still important. “But, they have downsides, as well as upsides, and we do not serve patients and the public well by focusing only on the latter or overstating the former.”

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