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Good news! Hope makes headlines

If it bleeds, it leads, or so the old journalistic adage goes. Not necessarily, say researchers from McGill University and the Lady Davis Institute for Medical Research of the Jewish General Hospital. In a first-of-its kind study that analyzes how cancer is portrayed in Canadian newspapers today versus 20 years ago, positivity and hope seem to be winning out.

"Our focus was on the media's potential impact on patient perspectives," said Dr. Melissa Henry, the study's lead author from McGill's Dept. of Oncology and the Segal Cancer Centre at the Jewish General Hospital where she provides specialized psychosocial oncology services to cancer patients through the Louise GranofskyPsychosocial Oncology Program. "Knowledge of how newspapers portray cancer is essential. It has the power to affect how individuals relate to cancer, it motivates information seeking and promotes preventive behaviours."

The research team, comprised of Dr. Henry, Dr. S. Robin Cohen, Mr. Brendan Trickey and Ms. Lina Nuoxin Huang, looked at cancer portrayals in six major dailies from across the country, sifting through and analyzing thousands of articles published within a three-month period in 2008 and in 1988/89.

Researchers found that cancer coverage in newspapers has increased compared to 20 years ago. While this may be associated with rising cancer rates, heightened public awareness and an aging population, a significant shift in tone and content also came with the uptick in coverage. "It is interesting to see a more positive spin on the articles now and I think that's a very hopeful message that's being sent out there," said Henry. The positive coverage may be attributed to an increasing number of cancer survivors, awareness groups, fundraising and new treatments.

Henry added that the positive coverage, while important, comes with a caveat: one needs to be wary of overly optimistic portrayals of cancer. The team found that the number of stories from 2008 relating to death and dying were half the number seen in 1988/89 which suggests that the public may not be getting the full picture in their understanding of issues surrounding the disease.

What's more, very few articles from either time period covered topics that touch on the psychological, social and existential/spiritual aspects of cancer like palliative care, bereavement or whole person care which underscores a critical gap in cancer reporting. "Journalists may be more focused on the cure than on the experience of cancer. Perhaps they need to be sensitized to a more holistic approach as seen in oncology programs across the country," added Henry.


Contact: Allison Flynn
McGill University

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