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Rare Humility by the News Media on Cancer

January 8, 2015

A lot of media outlets reported a story from the journal Science that found that the majority of cancers are not the result of environmental toxins or inherited genetic defects, but are caused by totally random mutations in cells that divide rapidly and often.

Good for them. The U.S. media so often uses phrases like “take control,” “empower,” and “fight” or “fighter” in their stories of people with cancer. It’s a subtle difference, but I’ve seen British stories that use the word “strong” when describing patient’s attitudes about their cancer. To my ears, the U.S. version implies that the patient is in control of the outcome; the British version implies an attitude no matter what the outcome. This study shows that cancers are most often no more predictable or fair than a lightning strike, just a lot more common.

Of course, the local TV news story I saw that reported on this study did a good job of explaining the randomness of cancer incidence, but then couldn’t help itself when the anchor said that the thing people should do about this study is increase their efforts to detect cancers early.

Sigh. The media’s humility has a way to go to reach its full expression. At least it’s a start.

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