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Mammogram Media Bias Study Has Fatal Flaws

April 11, 2011
Written by: , Filed in: Breast Imaging
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A new study largely blames “unsupportive” news articles for the confusion that resulted a year and a half ago when the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) announced new mammography guidelines.

Unfortunately, the study’s authors themselves exhibit confusion. They don’t even appear to understand the difference between news articles and press releases.

Frankly, the study and its accompanying commentary, both in the May issue of American Journal of Preventive Medicine, contain fatal flaws and should never have been published in their current form.

Full disclosure: I spent 16 years as a newspaper writer and editor. I love newspapers. I am also not shy about criticizing their shortcomings, as my long-suffering friends can confirm.

Now, to recap: The USPSTF had recommended that all women 40 or older receive mammography screening every one to two years. In November 2009, it announced new recommendations: no routine mammograms for women ages 40–49; mammograms every two years for women ages 50–74. It made no recommendation regarding women 75 or older.

The study says these recommendations “resulted in considerable media controversy.” Actually, they resulted in considerable controversy, period—primarily within the health-care community. The media didn’t create this controversy; it reported on (and, in the process, escalated) the controversy.

The study surveyed women and found them confused about the USPSTF recommendations. It blames “mixed messages and controversy” in the media in part for that confusion.

Good grief. For decades, public and private health-care advocates had pounded home the message that “mammograms save lives.” Then this governmental agency that most people had never heard of said, “Well, they don’t save enough lives if you’re under 50, so we’re not going to recommend them anymore for everyone in that age group, but check with your doctor to see if maybe you should have one anyway.”

Who wouldn’t be confused? The new recommendations were inherently more confusing because they were more complex and nuanced. That’s not the media’s fault. Or the public’s.

Speaking of confusion:

  • The study considers PR Newswire to be a news organization. It is not. PR Newswire distributes press releases—material from corporations and other entities that advocates their points of view. Equating PR Newswire with legitimate news outlets is like saying that TV commercials are the same as TV newscasts.
  • If I’m interpreting the study correctly, any news article that quoted someone who disagreed with the new recommendations was classified as “unsupportive.” By that logic, any article that quoted some jihadist shouting “death to America!” would be considered supportive of terrorism. News articles (as opposed to editorials) don’t take positions. They report on positions taken by people the reporter interviews.

Here’s what the study doesn’t get: The USPSTF didn’t understand the personal impact of its revised recommendations.

Scientists had good reasons (false positives, radiation risks, etc.) for recommending against routine mammograms for symptomless women in their 40s, even though such screening might save a few lives. But if you’re a 40-something woman, you inevitably think, “What if one of those ‘few lives’ saved is mine?”

Don’t blame the media for that reaction. “Blame” human nature.

Related seminar: Breast Imaging and Digital Mammography

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