ARTICLE: Who do journalists blame for cancer?

Untitled by SilasCamargo, licence CC0 1.0

Yong-Chan Kim and Jee Hyun Kim (Yonsei University), Minsun Shim (Inha University), and Keeho Park (National Cancer Center) investigated where the “locus of responsibility” rests in news stories on cancer (author names not in original order). They analysed 1 500 stories from 24 South Korean news outlets, published between 2008 and 2012.

Majority of the investigated stories (approx. 90 per cent) were about the causes of cancer. The most commonly observed “locus of responsibility” frame put the blame on the individual: implying cancer is due to, for example, obesity. Similarly, most solutions provided in the stories suggested personal responsibility (49.4 per cent) over social responsibility (36.9).

The authors also compared two different kinds of journalists: traditional journalists, and medical professionals turned journalists. The differences were notable: former doctors would rarely (6.3 per cent of stories) blame cancer on societal reasons, while other journalists did so almost five times as often (29.3 per cent of stories).

Traditional journalists also suggested social solutions to cancer (e.g. improved access to health services) more often than their medically trained colleagues (39.8 per cent vs. 15.9 per cent).

However, not all investigated news organisations employ medical experts as journalists. Interestingly, the news organisations without medical experts are overall more keen to put the responsibility on the individual. According to the authors this hints at a “division of labour” in those newsrooms that can afford to hire doctors: medical experts focus on advising individuals, while traditional journalists focus on societal issues.

Regardless, news organisations should be mindful of the way they represent cancer and responsibility thereof, the authors argue. Ignoring or downplaying the societal aspect of the condition will eventually reflect poorly on the effort society puts into preventing and treating cancer.

The article “Factors Affecting the ‘Locus of Responsibility’ in Cancer News” was published by the journal Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly. It is available online (abstract free).

Picture: Untitled by SilasCamargo, licence CC0 1.0.

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