Though people tend to give journalists a hard time for reporting overly negative news, the media is a little too optimistic when it comes to cancer research, experts say.

A study in the Archives of Internal Medicine reports that newspaper and magazine coverage of cancer research is more likely to discuss aggressive treatment and survival, than treatment failure, adverse events or death, and unlikely to mention end-of-life palliative or hospice care.

University of Philadelphia researchers conducted a content analysis of cancer news reporting between 2005 and 2007 in eight large U.S. newspapers and five national magazines. Of 2,228 cancer-related articles that appeared, a random sample of 436 was selected (312 from newspapers and 124 from magazines). Trained coders determined the proportion of articles devoted to various cancer-related topics.

The articles were most likely to focus on breast cancer (35.1 percent) or prostate cancer (14.9 percent), and 87 (20 percent) discussed cancer in general. A total of 140 (32.1 percent) focused on individuals surviving or being cured of cancer, whereas 33 (7.6 percent) focused on one or more patients who were dying or had died of cancer. Ten articles (2.3 percent) focused on both survival and death.

In addition, few articles (57, or 13.1 percent) reported that aggressive cancer treatments can fail to extend life or cure the disease, or that some cancers are incurable. Less than one-third of the articles (131, or 30 percent) mentioned adverse events associated with cancer treatments, such as nausea, pain or hair loss.

Most articles (249, or 57.1 percent) discussed aggressive treatments exclusively, but almost none (two, or 0.5 percent) discussed end-of-life care only and only 11 (2.5 percent) discussed both. "For many patients with cancer, it is important to know about palliative and hospice care because this information can help them make decisions that realistically reflect their prognosis and the risks and potential benefits of treatment," the authors write.

After adjusting for article length, there were no differences between magazine and newspaper articles in regards to any of these factors.

Given that one in two men and one in three women will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime and more than half a million Americans are expected to die of cancer every year, the media, according to the report, should strive for more balanced coverage of cancer research.

Although there's no way to quantify what that means, journalists should help their audiences develop a more comprehensive understanding of what's happening in the field. And that unfortunately means being a little less optimistic.

Citation: Jessica Fishman, Thomas Ten Have, David Casarett, 'Cancer and the Media', Arch Intern Med. 2010;170(6); doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2010.11