Oncology Central

Cancer research in the media: say it clearly and sensitively


Recently, mainstream media portrayal of cancer research has been thrust into the spotlight, with the driving force being the release of Cristian Tomasetti and Bert Vogelstein’s paper ‘Variation in cancer risk among tissues can be explained by the number of stem cell divisions’ [1]. Despite looking to identify the reasons behind variation in cancer risk between tissue types, a choice of two words within the abstract inflated the findings to media headlines stating that ‘most cancers are due to bad luck’.

As a result of this series of events, we have been preoccupied with the interaction between the media and cancer researchers, and how situations like this could be avoided in the future. We spoke to Henry Scowcroft, Cancer Research UK’s News and Multimedia Editor, to discuss his thoughts on the media coverage of Tomasetti and Vogelstein’s paper, and what researchers can do to ensure that their message is correctly represented.

Recent coverage of the paper from Johns Hopkins University (MD, USA) has been somewhat controversial. Can you put this into perspective for us? What were your initial reactions to the paper?

The scientists who authored the research paper were some fairly eminent research scientists; Vogelstein, for example, has done some incredible work over his career. They were doing what science does – taking an idea and investigating. It was published in a prominent journal, as happens when you’re a senior research scientist who’s done something really intriguing, and the research got out there.

The press release pulled out the emotive language used in the paper discussing ‘bad luck’. They could have said ‘chance’, they could have said ‘random effect’ – the choice of words was not helpful. There are some things that you know the media is going to go for, and the media quite understandably went for that.

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