OBJECTIVES: The use of more medicalised labels can increase both concern about illness and the desire for more invasive treatment. This study analyses the media's coverage of an Analysis article in The BMJ which generated a large amount of high-profile international media coverage. It aims to understand how to better communicate messages about low-risk cancers and overdiagnosis to the public.
DESIGN: Content analysis of media coverage.
SETTING: Media was identified by Isentia Media Portal, searched in Google News and cross-checked in Factiva and Proquest databases from August 2018.
METHODS: Media headlines, full text and open access public comments responding to the coverage on the article proposing to 'rename low-risk conditions currently labelled as cancer' were analysed to determine the main themes.
RESULTS: 45 original media articles and their associated public comments (n=167) were identified and included in the analysis. Overall, headlines focused on cancer generally and there was little mention of 'low-risk', 'overdiagnosis' or 'overtreatment'. The full text generally presented a more balanced view of the evidence and were supportive of the proposal, however, public responses tended to be more negative towards the idea of renaming low-risk cancers and indicated confusion. Comments seemed to focus on the headlines rather than the full article.
CONCLUSIONS: This study offers a novel insight into media coverage of the complex and counterintuitive problem of overdiagnosis. Continued deliberation on how to communicate similar topics to the public through the mainstream media is needed. Future work in the area of low-risk cancer communication should consider the powerful impact of people's previous experience with a cancer diagnosis and the criticism about being paternalistic and concealing the truth from patients.