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Newspaper Reporting about Mammography To Screen for Breast Cancer FREE

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The summary below is from the full report titled “Newspaper Reporting of Screening Mammography.” It is in the 18 December 2001 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine (volume 135, pages 1029-1037). The authors are J Wells, P Marshall, B Crawley, and K Dickersin.

Ann Intern Med. 2001;135(12):S63. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-135-12-200112180-00002
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What is the problem and what is known about it so far?

Newspaper articles about health topics are an important source of information for the public but may not provide clear, accurate information. Past studies suggest that many newspaper reports contain errors, leave out important information, and don't explain the science behind the health issue.

Why did the researchers do this particular study?

To describe newspaper stories related to mammography. Mammography is a special type of x-ray used to detect breast cancer. The authors chose this topic because it is controversial: Experts disagree about the value of mammograms in women 40 to 49 years of age, but women need to decide whether or not to have mammography.

What was studied?

The researchers reviewed 225 newspaper stories about mammography. Each was published between 1990 and 1997 in one of six high-circulation newspapers: USA Today, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and Houston Chronicle.

How was the study done?

Two researchers read each article. They recorded the type of article, the main issue addressed in the article, the sources of information, the identity and role of people and organizations quoted in the article, and what the quotes said. They looked for recommendations about whether women should have mammography. They also recorded how the article described the risk for breast cancer and the benefits of mammography.

What did the researchers find?

Most of the 225 articles focused on mammography for women 40 to 49 years of age. One third of the articles didn't say where their information had come from. Quotations and recommendations mostly supported mammography for women in this age group. The reporters seldom described the uncertainty of the scientific evidence on this issue. The news reports also tended to overstate the potential benefit of mammography for women 40 to 49 years of age and did not convey the controversy among experts on this issue. Their recommendations also rarely reflected the recommendations made by national authorities.

What were the limitations of the study?

The study included only six newspapers and only articles published from 1990 to 1997. It is unclear whether the quality of newspaper reports is better in more recent years or in other newspapers. This study does not tell us whether the same problems also exist in newspaper stories about other health topics.

What are the implications of the study?

Newspaper reporters could improve their stories about mammography for women 40 to 49 years of age by identifying the sources of information included, relying less heavily on a few sources, and framing benefits in terms that the public can understand.





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