Journalists' views on media coverage of medical tests and overdiagnosis: a qualitative study

Mary O'Keeffe, Brooke Nickel, Thomas Dakin, Chris G Maher, Loai Albarqouni, Kirsten McCaffery, Alexandra Barratt, Ray Moynihan

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Abstract

OBJECTIVE: Promotional media coverage of early detection tests is an important driver of overdiagnosis. Following research evidence that global media coverage presents the benefits of testing healthy people far more frequently than harms, and gives little coverage to overdiagnosis, we sought to examine journalists' views on media reporting of tests, overdiagnosis, and strategies to improve critical reporting on tests.

DESIGN: Qualitative study using semistructured telephone interviews. Interviews were conducted between February and March 2020 and were audiorecorded and transcribed verbatim. Framework thematic analysis was used to analyse the data.

PARTICIPANTS AND SETTING: Twenty-two journalists (mainly specialising in health reporting, average 14.5 years' experience) based in Australia.

RESULTS: This sample of journalists acknowledged the potential harms of medical tests but felt that knowledge of harms was low among journalists and the public at large. Most were aware of the term overdiagnosis, but commonly felt that it is challenging to both understand and communicate in light of strong beliefs in the benefits of early detection. Journalists felt that newsworthiness in the form of major public health impact was the key ingredient for stories about medical tests. The journalists acknowledged that factors, like the press release and 'click bait culture' in particular, can influence the framing of coverage about tests. Lack of knowledge and training, as well as time pressures, were perceived to be the main barriers to critical reporting on tests. Journalists felt that training and better access to information about potential harms would enable more critical reporting.

CONCLUSIONS: Effectively communicating overdiagnosis is a challenge in light of common beliefs about the benefits of testing and the culture of current journalism practices. Providing journalists with training, support and better access to information about potential harms of tests could aid critical reporting of tests.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere043991
JournalBMJ Open
Volume11
Issue number6
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2021

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