Self-administered questionnaires sent to 364 Japanese medical journalists allowed them to describe their experiences in selecting stories, choosing angles, and performing research when creating cancer-centered news pieces.

The journalists report that they did not find pharmaceutical press releases to be helpful, preferring direct contact with physicians as their most reliable and prized sources of information. This is much different than in America, where it is assumed that the experts know the most about study results and methodology and anecdotes from doctors are less valuable.

Medical journalists also report using social media and personal connections to support their research, which can also lead to problems for cancer patients and the public. Like in America, cancer treatment stories are going to be unfailingly optimistic, even if it is in an animal model.

Dr. Haruka Nakada of the University of Tokyo suggests that relying entirely on traditional media to understand cancer may distort patient expectations.  New science journalists report the same thing; their first month in the field they are certain life on other planets is about to be discovered, old age is going to be cured and that one chemical is secretly killing us while some new fruit can cure obesity. After two months they are more jaded.

"Cancer patients and their family members should have a variety of information sources - not only mass media, but also social media, their doctors, or word-of-mouth communication among cancer patients," says Nakada. 

All journalists reported difficulties in producing accurate and interesting cancer news stories. The most commonly reported concerns were the quality of source information, difficulty in understanding technical information, and a shortage of background knowledge.

Nakada's team notes that these concerns are fair - and common. "As medical knowledge advances rapidly, journalists may have increasing difficulty covering cancer-related issues." 

Nakada's team cite the "Gefitinib scandal," which affected cancer treatment in Japan when overly optimistic media reports about the benefits of the "dream drug" led to unfortunate outcomes. It highlights the need for responsible healthcare reporting, but those days may be long gone, at least in the United States. Corporate media has abdicated journalism in favor of stories that scare people or save people, with far too much false equivalence between science and critics of medicine. 

Reference: Nakada Haruka, Tsubokura Masaharu, Kishi Yukiko, Yuji Koichiro, Matsumura Tomoko and Kami Masahiro (2015) How do medical journalists treat cancer-related issues? ecancer 9 502 DOI: 10.3332/ecancer.2015.502