Increasing age is a risk factor for developing cancer. Yet, older people commonly underestimate this risk, are less likely to be aware of the early symptoms, and are more likely to be diagnosed with advanced stage cancer. Mass media are a key influence on the public’s understanding health issues, including cancer risk. This study investigates how news media have represented age and other risk factors in the most common cancers over time.
Eight hundred articles about the four most common cancers (breast, prostate, lung and colorectal) published within eight UK national newspapers in 2003, 2004, 2013 and 2014 were identified using the Nexis database. Relevant manifest content of articles was coded quantitatively and subjected to descriptive statistical analysis in SPSS to identify patterns across the data.
Risk was presented in half of the articles but this was rarely discussed in any depth and around a quarter of all articles introduced more than one risk factor, irrespective of cancer site. Age was mentioned as a risk factor in approximately 12% of all articles and this varied by cancer site. Age was most frequently reported in relation to prostate cancer and least often in articles about lung cancer. Articles featuring personal narratives more frequently focused on younger people and this was more pronounced in non-celebrity stories; only 15% of non-celebrity narratives were about people over 60. Other common risks discussed were family history and genetics, smoking, diet, alcohol, and environmental factors. Family history and genetics together featured as the most common risk factors. Risk factor reporting varied by site and family history was most commonly associated with breast cancer, diet with bowel cancer and smoking with lung cancer.
Age and older adults were largely obscured in media representation of cancer and cancer experience. Indeed common risk factors in general were rarely discussed in any depth. Our findings will usefully inform the development of future cancer awareness campaigns and media guidelines. It is important that older adults appreciate their heightened risk, particularly in the context of help-seeking decisions.