Luck is on their side in “bad luck” cancer study

Author: Stacey Johnson, 01/20/15

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Creative Commons

Creative Commons

Before you read my blog, I recommend that you first read Sara Nolte’s blog “Bad luck, bad science, or bad reporting?” In it, Sara does an excellent job explaining and commenting on Drs. Cristian Tomasetti’s and Bert Vogelstein’s study “Variation in cancer risk among tissues can be explained by the number of stem cell divisions.” Am I surprised, like Sara, that it generated so much media coverage? Not one bit.

This study had many elements in its favour. First, it had a catchy news release headline titled “Bad luck of random mutations plays predominant role in cancer, study shows.” I’d want to read more, wouldn’t you? Add to that the credibility of being published in the popular and reputable journal Science and it was bound to attract attention.

Then there was the strategic – or perhaps lucky – timing of the release: January 1, 2015. Talk about a slow news day. With most people still at home recovering from New Year’s Eve festivities, or simply enjoying a holiday in countries that follow the Gregorian calendar, there wasn’t a lot of anything crying out for media attention. It’s a perfect time for your news to get noticed, and for news-hungry journalists to grab it.

I contacted Jolon Craw, Client Relations Manager at Marketwired, (the news release distribution service that the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine (CCRM) uses) and asked how many releases they issue on a typical day in Canada and the U.S. and their yearly stats. Please see the table below.

 

News wire service (top three in North America) Typical day January 1, 2015 Annual distribution
MarketWired 280 16 news releases 100,000
BusinessWire 800 18 news releases 300,000
PR Newswire 800 25 news releases 300,000

 

As you can see, there was a significant drop in the number of news releases that were issued to the media on January 1st compared to an average day. It can be overwhelming for reporters and editors to stay on top of all the releases that are sent over wire services – note the annual distribution column – but on January 1st that cancer study would have been easy to spot. As I said, New Year’s Day is a great day to get your news noticed!

Now to the content of the study: The idea that getting cancer can be chalked up to bad luck lets people off the hook. That’s a popular premise. Why limit poor lifestyle choices when depriving yourself may have no effect on your likelihood of getting cancer? Prevention strategies put the onus on us to make healthy choices. Finding a cure is the responsibility of “others.”

For patients and their friends and families living through the pain and fear of cancer, the bad luck argument also offers some explanation for why “Mrs. Smith,” who doesn’t smoke, eats well, exercises regularly and applies her sun block assiduously, ended up with it anyway.

I am certain the release wouldn’t have done nearly as well if the topic of the study wasn’t so relatable. Too many people succumb to cancer every year, around the world. Cancer is big news.

The release did well. Perhaps even too well since so much attention drew the ire of scientists and other media watchers. If I could get global coverage – 11,000,000 hits on Google in this case, give or take – for a news release about CCRM, I’d be overjoyed. However, if much of the coverage was questioning the validity of the content of the release and whether my headline was misleading, I might be looking for a new job.

Is someone to blame?

People love to fault the media. In this case, it appears that the media mostly “got it right.” After all, the news release from Johns Hopkins Medicine states:

“[The researchers] found that 22 cancer types could be largely explained by the ‘bad luck’ factor of random DNA mutations during cell division. The other nine cancer types had incidences higher than predicted by ‘bad luck’ and were presumably due to a combination of bad luck plus environmental or inherited factors.” And “…Many forms of cancer are due largely to the bad luck of acquiring a mutation in a cancer driver gene regardless of lifestyle and heredity factors.” (The emphasis is mine.)

Sara and others have weighed in whether the media were accurate in their reporting. Sara says no. Andrew Maynard, who she references in her blog, says, “In the case of this paper, it’s hard to see clear evidence of bad reporting. There is a lack of balance and contextualization though that, it seems, has its roots in the original paper.”

Health reporter Julia Belluz looks at the issue of health journalism in her December 2014 article “Why so many of the health articles you read are junk.” She points to a British Medical Journal study from 2011 that examined why overblown health claims happened. The study looked at 462 news releases about human health studies then compared the releases to the original findings and the news coverage that followed. The upshot? University press officers (apologies to my public relations colleagues) “were a major source of overhype: over one-third of press releases contained either exaggerated claims of causation (when the study itself only suggested correlation), unwarranted implications about animal studies for people, or unfounded health advice.”

To reduce the sting somewhat, “Most press releases issued by universities are drafted in dialogue between scientists and press officers and are not released without the approval of scientists and thus most of the responsibility for exaggeration must lie with the scientific authors.” In my experience, that is certainly true, whether in academia or industry. Similar conclusions were drawn in a study in the U.S.

In this instance, it appears that the media were reporting what they had been told without exaggerating the findings to sensationalize the results. The fact that Johns Hopkins issued an addendum to their original release, after the tsunami of media coverage, indicates their desire to circle the wagons.

Does that mean we should let the media off the hook? Journalist Julia says “Journalists [should] be more skeptical. […] We would investigate every health claim before disseminating it to our large and vulnerable audiences.” And, “I need to think about the words I write in the same way a doctor thinks when he or she writes a prescription.” Indeed. The written word carries great weight.

It looks like many parties were complicit in how this study generated so much media coverage. It will be interesting to see whether a statement from the World Health Organization’s specialized cancer agency “strongly disagree[ing] with the conclusion” of the study garners an equal amount of media attention. My guess is no.

 

 

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Stacey Johnson

Stacey Johnson

Stacey has been providing strategic communications counsel to government, corporate, technology and health organizations since completing a MSc in Public Relations in 1997. Prior to that, Stacey was at the CTV Television Network, first as a researcher, then as a story producer for “Goldhawk Fights Back,” a special ombudsman segment that aired weekly on the National News and Canada AM. Before joining CCRM, Stacey was the Director of Communications for the Canadian Arthritis Network. Stacey is editor of Signals Blog. You can follow Stacey on Twitter @msstaceyerin.
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