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Original research
Media coverage of calls to rename low-risk cancers: a content analysis
  1. Brooke Nickel1,2,
  2. Ray Moynihan1,3,
  3. Alexandra Barratt1,
  4. Juan P Brito4,
  5. Kirsten McCaffery1,2
  1. 1Wiser Healthcare, School of Public Health, Faculty of Medicine and Health, The University of Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
  2. 2Sydney Health Literacy Lab, School of Public Health, Faculty of Medicine and Health, The University of Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
  3. 3Centre for Research in Evidence-Based Practice, Faculty of Health Sciences and Medicine, Bond University, Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia
  4. 4Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes, Metabolism & Nutrition, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota, USA
  1. Correspondence to Dr Brooke Nickel; brooke.nickel{at}


Objectives The use of more medicalised labels can increase both concern about illness and the desire for more invasive treatment. This study analyses the media’s coverage of an Analysis article in The BMJ which generated a large amount of high-profile international media coverage. It aims to understand how to better communicate messages about low-risk cancers and overdiagnosis to the public.

Design Content analysis of media coverage.

Setting Media was identified by Isentia Media Portal, searched in Google News and cross-checked in Factiva and Proquest databases from August 2018.

Methods Media headlines, full text and open access public comments responding to the coverage on the article proposing to ‘rename low-risk conditions currently labelled as cancer’ were analysed to determine the main themes.

Results 45 original media articles and their associated public comments (n=167) were identified and included in the analysis. Overall, headlines focused on cancer generally and there was little mention of ‘low-risk’, ‘overdiagnosis’ or ‘overtreatment’. The full text generally presented a more balanced view of the evidence and were supportive of the proposal, however, public responses tended to be more negative towards the idea of renaming low-risk cancers and indicated confusion. Comments seemed to focus on the headlines rather than the full article.

Conclusions This study offers a novel insight into media coverage of the complex and counterintuitive problem of overdiagnosis. Continued deliberation on how to communicate similar topics to the public through the mainstream media is needed. Future work in the area of low-risk cancer communication should consider the powerful impact of people’s previous experience with a cancer diagnosis and the criticism about being paternalistic and concealing the truth from patients.

  • public health
  • oncology
  • journalism (see Medical Journalism)

This is an open access article distributed in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial (CC BY-NC 4.0) license, which permits others to distribute, remix, adapt, build upon this work non-commercially, and license their derivative works on different terms, provided the original work is properly cited, appropriate credit is given, any changes made indicated, and the use is non-commercial. See:

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  • Contributors BN, RM, AB, JPB and KM conceived the study. BN, RM and KM were involved in designing the study and data analysis. BN drafted the manuscript. All authors contributed to the interpretation of the analysis, and critically revised and approved the manuscript.

  • Funding This project was supported by a National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Centre for Research Excellence Grant (1104136). KM is supported by an NHMRC Principal Research Fellowship (1121110).

  • Competing interests RM and AB are members of the Scientific Committee of Preventing Overdiagnosis international conferences. RM, AB and KM are lead investigators on Wiser Healthcare a research collaboration to reduce overdiagnosis and overtreatment.

  • Patient consent for publication Not required.

  • Ethics approval The study was approved by the University of Sydney Human Research Ethics Committee (2019/773).

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Data availability statement No data are available.

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