Is Cancer News Confusing the Public?

Kathleen Blanchard's picture

Cancer news can be confusing to the public say researchers from North Carolina State University. When it comes to treatment especially, the scientists say language and terms used in stories about cancer can lead to more uncertainty than already accompanies cancer diagnosis.

Ryan Hurley, a senior lecturer of communication at NCSU and lead author of the study says, “We found that nearly two-thirds of cancer news articles contain at least some uncertain terms – words or phrases that reflect probability or ambiguity rather than certainty."

Cancer Treatment most Frequent Source of Confusion from News Sources

The researchers looked at over 800 articles from Google News, Yahoo! News, and, finding the most frequent source of confusion was related to cancer treatment found n the articles.


“For example, one news article said, “There is no evidence that adding chemotherapy right away helps and it may even worsen patients’ chances.” Hurley explains that this sentence creates uncertainty for readers because it indicates a lack of information (no evidence) as well as ambiguity about treatment efficacy (may even worsen).”

The researchers used a strategy of phrases that captures five categories of related to cancer news that could confuse the more than one-third of Americans who seek heath information online – “conflicting information, complex information, ambiguous information, having too much information and having too little information.”

“To this point, no one has developed a means of systematically identifying and quantifying uncertain terms,” Hurley says. “We believe the scheme we’ve created could be applied to identify uncertain terms in any text, from news articles to advertisements.”

The researchers plan to use the scheme to further elucidate how uncertain messages from online news sources influence health decisions and behavior. The current study revealed most online cancer news stories contribute to public confusion and uncertainty, especially related to cancer treatment.

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