Prof. Jeff Niederdeppe, communications, says that local television news coverage of cancer leads to an increase in fatalistic beliefs about the disease and promotes negative health habits.
Along with Prof. Chul-Joo Lee of Ohio State University, Niederdeppe found that the brief nature of local news and its tendency to report causes rather than preventive behaviors encourages negative feelings and unhealthy tendencies, he said.
“Our study looks at the link between people’s media diets and the extent to which they feel confused, fatalistic — that they think everything causes cancer and that there’s nothing that can be done to prevent it,” Niederdeppe said.
More than a quarter of Americans think there is not much they can do to prevent cancer, three quarters of the national population say the abundance of recommendations about preventing cancer overwhelm them and half of Americans agree that “everything causes cancer,” according to the study.
Previous studies have linked pessimistic attitudes to negative health habits, such as smoking, unhealthy eating and skipping exercise. This study takes previous examinations further, finding that TV causes the fatalistic attitudes that manifest in unhealthy activities.
Because cancer coverage is brief and focuses on preliminary studies, local TV news tends to make people feel fatalistic, Neiderdeppe said. He explained that while the everyday viewer might consider preliminary studies as fact, the scientific community does not think of them in the same way. Rather, scientists understand that science is a gradual process of replicating research and should not be acted upon immediately. But the general public does not think in the same way and might take preliminary studies too seriously, according to Neiderdeppe.
“I don’t think there’s any way of stopping preliminary studies from becoming public, but I do think what the media could do is do a better job of identifying which studies are preliminary and which ones should be acted upon,” Niederdeppe said.
Brad Vivacqua, a YNN channel 10 local news reporter of seven years, disagreed with Niederdeppe’s research, stressing local TV coverage of preventive measures.
YNN news focuses on informing the public about new cancer research, upcoming events that benefit research and opportunities for cancer screening, according to Vivacqua.
“From my experience, the stories that I’ve done regarding cancer have all been to make sure you’re checked for it so you can detect it early,” Vivacqua said.
Although scientists cannot confidently identify the cause of cancer, reports on new studies and potential causes offer hope, he said.
“I don’t think [these reports] heighten anxiety,” Vivacqua said. “I think they heighten awareness.”
But local TV news stories are less than one minute long, so are less likely to cover screening tests or to cite health organizations, Lee said.
“There is some evidence suggesting that getting the details wrong is not as common as leaving details out,” Niederdeppe said.
Looking to the future, Niederdeppe said he believes that media should convey cancer news stories in a way that does not confuse or worry the general public. Niederdeppe suggested that local news outlets stress that 50 percent of cancer cases are preventable, which he said would mitigate the harm that comes from “publicizing new and uncertain science.”
“One of the things that we’re trying to do in our future work is to try and understand what aspects of reporting might reduce the chance of making people feel like there is nothing they can do to prevent cancer,” he said.
Niederdeppe and Lee surveyed subjects once in 2005 and followed up a year later. The surveys measured people’s “media diets” — what types of media they consume and at what frequency — in relation to their fatalistic attitudes toward cancer. The results of the study indicate that watching TV inspires fatalistic beliefs about cancer, rather than people turning to TV because they already feel fatalistic, he said.