Is Bad News Good Press?

Hey everyone,

I found this article on a medical news website. It sheds light on some studies that have shown that cell phones are NOT associated with cancer, especially head and neck cancer as previously thought. I thought it was relevant because A) cancer is the topic for the week, and B) We all use cell phones, so this could have been a  big problem for our generation. When I saw this title, I instantly thought of when research came out suggesting a link between cell phone use and cancer. The articles were EVERYWHERE on the Internet and in print media. However, I had to search a specific medical news site to find this one.
Here’s the article:

And here are some previous articles from when cancer and cell phone use were thought to be linked
First Article
Second Article
It seems that “bad” medical news (and most news in general) seems to make the front page of all of the media sources. I guess I really have two questions that sort of intertwine: 1) Why do you think bad medical news seems to go mainstream so fast, and 2) How do you think that this sort of news contributes to people’s health/daily activities? Are journalists creating a world full of hypochondriacs?

I’m really looking forward to seeing your responses!



9 Responses to “Is Bad News Good Press?”

  1. Good questions, Adam. Thanks for volunteering to start us off this term. One small technical point: When you’re inserting a link here or anywhere else, look in the tool bar for a symbol that looks like a chain. Highlight the word that you want to link somewhere else. (For example, in the sentence “Here’s the link” you would highlight the word “here.”) Hit the chain symbol/link tool. A pop-up box should appear asking you for the URL. Paste it in there. Voila! The word you have highlighted should be a hot link to that URL. That should make your posts easier to read.
    In your responses to Adams questions, it’s not required to give your own link. But if you want to do that it’s sometimes a nice way to move the discussion forward.

  2. Unfortunately, I think bad medical news is popular because people crave controversy. Journalists and their editors know what is going to get papers sold, page views, etc. and that is what they need to print. It’s sad, because it often seems that there is much more bad medical news than good, but I tend to think that is far from the case.

    I think bad medical news can take people in one of two directions: they can become paranoid or they can become careless. It seems like every new electronic that comes out is going to be the next biggest cause of cancer, because media always finds a way to make that a story. Microwaves cause cancer. Cell phones cause cancer. Everything seems to “cause cancer” now. There is a small fraction of people that choose to be “safe” and avoid electronics that emit frequencies. But the vast majority of people, I’d say, have become accustomed to either glossing over the “news” about these electronics being dangerous for us because we don’t really care or believe that we will be effected, or we will read the article to become more informed, but not change what we do because of it.

    • Peter:
      Thanks for your comments and I really appreciate you responding to both posts, but you can just respond to one per week. That’s because the students vote on the student with the best response and it’s easier if they’re just voting on one response.

  3. I agree with Peter. I think “bad” medical news generates a bigger audience for media sources. People are more inclined to read an article about something that could potentially have negative effects on them. Journalists have a job to report on things relevant to their audience’s interests, and it seems that “bad” medical news is a popular subject. However, reporting on “bad” medical news is not always a bad thing. From the point of a scientist or researcher, any kind of press could be good press, especially if it raises awareness about the issue in the public’s eye. For example, if journalists focus on “bad” medical news involving cancer, the public will most likely come to view it as a huge health issue that needs to be addressed immediately. Funding for cancer research may significantly increase due to the attention it’s receiving in the press, which will then benefit the scientist.

    The influence “bad” medical news has on people’s daily activities really depends on the reader and how they respond to the news. Do they research a topic further, ignore it, or take it to heart? This varies from person to person. It also depends on how the article is written. If a journalist reports on a negative health topic from a unbiased standpoint and includes opinions and sources from all sides, then the article probably won’t give rise to many hypochondriacs. It’s the sensational styles that cause problems. With “bad” medical news, one must evaluate how much of it is hype or misrepresentation of information.

  4. First, I noticed the article in Medical News Today did a great job of acknowledging that patients complaining and identifying of the symptoms were validated and expressed their entitlement to health services and such. I did really appreciate that. But at the same time, more information is needed and more experts opinions would be helpful to further the discussion.

    I do agree with previous posts that support that news is infamously always negative. But attention grabbing trends are usually ones that cause alarm in people. When something can be damaging people tend to be paying more attention, whether or not they do change their habits that could be harmful or putting them at risk. People might think that good news can be boring. It seems to be easier to appeal to people’s emotions through negative events and emotions. Fear, sympathy, etc.

    But I do think the Cellphones and cancer issue is a good one with conflicting evidence. This seems to be to me and what I’ve observed that when conclusions are unclear and debated with an expert community, or at least portrayed that way to me through the media and journalism. When the discourse does not give a clear answer, in this case about cell phones about the validity of the cause or a solution to the problem, it is easier for someone to ignore it and continue their behaviors. In public health, this is observed quite often. How is correct information conveyed to the public and then convinced to change their behavior?

    On another note – a lot of the date presented in both articles does not seem very credible. A couple big facts are unclear, maybe misleading statistics. Less convincing me to change my habits and my personal health.

  5. Hi Adam, thank you for sharing that article. Without having looked into any journalistic articles or scientific studies, I just always assumed that cellphones were a leading cause of cancers because, as you say, the news was everywhere! I’ll definitely be keeping up with this issue as both my cell phone and my health are very important to me.

    So you’ve mentioned that medical news tends to go mainstream very quickly. I absolutely agree- yes it does circulate very, very fast- but what type of news are you comparing it to? This is not a counterargument to your point in any way, I would just like to know what news you think tends to flow and what news stagnates, since the difference between the two can mean success or failure in the journalism industry.

    I believe that medical news goes mainstream so fast for 2 main reasons:
    1. Whilst there are no possible studies to prove it, it can be argued that on some level, health is a concern for every human being. Evolutionarily, those with greater health survive and pass on their healthy genes and those with below average health do not pass on their genes or pass on more defective ones, meaning that our health on a biological level, being as it is largely ineradicable, is always on our conscious (I apologize if I sound harsh, I recently studied genetics and discovered that the DNA that we receive from our parents can never be changed, so health and behavioral tendencies are predisposed). However, when it comes to cancer, what we have learnt is that the disease can really affect anyone. While yes, certain cancerous genetics are predisposed, biosocial interactions between these genes and certain environmental factors, exacerbate cancer (smoking, etc.), meaning that cancer can affect really anyone and everyone. Health, cancer and all other related stories are therefore issues that people want to get information for and people feel entitled to that information as it is the obligatory job of journalists to inform the public.

    2. The second point is a little obvious but sometimes it goes unnoticed because it happens so often. Medical news stories travel so fast because, very simply, we want to be grossed out! We want to be shocked! We want to be saying “eww…”, and telling our friends about the strange stuff we discovered on the Internet. If you don’t believe me, just ask yourself what type of news stories you’ve shared to your friends recently. I’m sure the majority of you would agree that, regardless of whether the story was fact or fiction, the weirder the story was, the more you spread it (my housemate recently told me a story about murderous beauty queens!). It is so standard now for stories to include a ‘wow’ factor. The more surreal and unusual a story is, the more likely it is going to spread by word-of-mouth and the more exposure the author, the publication and the advertisers will likely receive. Thus, sensationalized stories are not selfless acts to simply entertain and heighten awareness in readers- there are capital motives!

    This hyperbolized news can really change how we react to external properties. I remember when I heard about the cell phone and cancer news, I completely changed my cell phone ritual and any chance I could, I used loudspeaker instead of pressing the phone onto my ear. This is because, in spite of all our cynicism and frequent hatred towards it, we do expect the news to give us factual information- if we didn’t, we wouldn’t be googling every second fact we didn’t know or any lingering questions about life that were plaguing our minds. So yes, any type of news has the innate ability to change the way the public perceive their surroundings and consequently, how they act in everyday life.

  6. Nice questions, Adam.

    I think that articles about topics like these definitely impact people’s everyday behavior, just by making them more conscientious of their behaviors. We don’t want to be too careful and shield ourselves from everything, but it is better to be informed about potential dangers than to be kept in the dark. So, I don’t think that journalists are creating a world of hypochondriacs. I think they are simply doing their job of keeping people informed and up to date.
    However, there may be some competition between journalists to make the most sensationalized, attention-grabbing stories, even in the realm of very objective health news. Furthermore, I think that journalists might seek out certain topics that have taken one side or promulgated one belief for a long time and try to introduce something that questions that long-standing understanding and provokes people. If this is the journalist’s sole motivation, that is concerning for readers. If the questioning evidence, such as cell phones not causing cancer, is valid, then the story is good whether or not it is delivering happy news. Another reason to seek out these “challenging the news” stories is to make money, which people of all professions need to think about when doing their work.


  7. Hey Adam, you picked a good topic to discuss. Essentially, I tried viewing this topic from different perspectives. To start off, I would like to play devil’s advocate. What we may deem as “bad” medical news could either be actually bad medical news or just regular news. To say a medical news report is “bad,” we would have to follow one of three reasons. First, medical news can be “bad” because we know about the subject being discussed and consider it lacking in credibility. Second, the average person only knows so much, meaning a majority of what we call “bad” medical news comes from other “good” medical news deferring what was said in a “bad” medical news article, like the article you were discussing. The third reason why medical news can be “bad” is because individual ideas can be subjected to change from the general public/national opinion. For example, if (and it actually happened) a national government somewhere somehow denies the fact that HIV causes AIDS, then over time, those certain people will eventually believe that too, especially in lower socioeconomic countries. So “bad” medical news can vary with access to education, time (the second reason can only be judged from a future-self), and individual-community relationships.

    So to answer your first question, “bad” medical news may not be “bad” medical news at the time allowing it to be shared all over. Chances are, when most of us read an article, specifically a medical article, we don’t really take it upon ourselves to research the subject after reading. I am almost fairly certain the average person doesn’t research most articles they read, which leads to a potential problem: that “bad” medical news has the ability to be around for a while, until, usually, another expert in the field either confirms or denies what the article says.

    However, there is another side to this. A “bad” medical news article can be perceived as a “good” one and this can all be accomplished by headlines. Headlines are ways that “bad” medical news can spread. Sometimes, people don’t even read the articles if they can see the headline. For example, a headline could read “New Multiple Sclerosis Drug Reduces Fatality By 80%” or something of the sort. Now while the headline sounds appealing and pretty much says everything the article would say (without the scientific syntax), there could be a million things wrong with it, like perhaps the 80% refers to only Southern Icelandic women aged 24-35, which is very misleading.

    I don’t think I’ll get to the second question, but I would like to end with saying that “bad” medical news is only a matter of perspective, and is still better than no medical news, because we can always learn from the “bad” stuff.

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