Effects of Media Controversies on Public Attitudes about Cancer Prevention

Principal Investigator:
Sarah Gollust, Associate Professor, Division of Health Policy and Management

Key Collaborators:
Erika Franklin Fowler, Associate Professor, Government Department, Wesleyan University
Rebekah Nagler, Associate Professor, Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Minnesota

Project Summary

Exposure to information plays a significant role in patient behaviors and decisions across the cancer care continuum and also contributes to the public’s support for policy. Understanding the impact of messages that are conflicting or controversial in the media is critical to guide public health efforts to deliver accurate and timely information to the public and to correct potentially harmful messages related to cancer prevention and screening. The two cases explored in this project, breast cancer screening and the human papillomavirus vaccine, are significant public health challenges. Moreover, they continue to be presented to the public in ways that may compromise public understanding: with conflict and at times, heated controversy. The motivation for our project is to understand how these features of communication influence the public as these issues are communicated by researchers through the news media and translated by journalists.

Our research uses multiple methods to investigate the impact of news coverage of cancer screening and prevention, particularly controversial messages, on the public’s cancer-related beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. In particular, we use nationally representative surveys, survey-based experiments, news media content analysis, and interviews with communication stakeholders. This mixed-method study contributes a new understanding about the conflicting and potentially politicized information environment surrounding cancer. In order to intervene to aid the public, women, and parents in making decisions about cancer prevention, we must first grasp the ways in which a competitive media landscape shapes public understanding of cancer.

  • Nora Marino (MPH graduate, Division of Health Policy and Management)
  • Jiani Yu (PhD student, Division of Health Policy and Management)
  • Kari Mentzer (PhD student, Division of Health Policy and Management)
  • Manami Bhattacharya (PhD student, Division of Health Policy and Management)
  • Xuanzi (Shirley) Qin (PhD student, Division of Health Policy and Management)
  • Weijia Shi (PhD student, Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication)
  • Loren Saulsberry (U of Chicago)
  • Laura Baum (Wesleyan University)

We thank the following project advisors, past and present, for their contributions to the project: Karla Kerlikowske, Arthur (Skip) Lupia, Gary Schwitzer, Jonathan Slater, Beth Virnig.

Nagler RH, Fowler EF, Gollust SE. Covering Controversy: What Are the Implications for Women’s Health? Women’s Health Issues. 2015; 25(4):318-21.

Gollust SE, LoRusso S, Nagler RH, Fowler EF. Understanding the Role of the News Media in HPV Vaccine Uptake in the United States: Synthesis and Commentary. Human Vaccines & Immunotherapeutics. 2016; 12(6): 1430-4.

Yu J, Nagler RH, Fowler EF, Kerlikowske K, Gollust SE. Women’s Awareness and Perceived Importance of the Harms and Benefits of Mammography Screening: Results from a 2016 National Survey. JAMA Internal Medicine. 2017; 177(9): 1381-1382.

Nagler RH, Fowler EF, Gollust SE. Women’s Awareness of and Responses to Messages about Breast Cancer Overdiagnosis and Overtreatment: Results from a 2016 National Survey. Medical Care. 2017; 55 (10): 879-885.

Nagler RH, Fowler EF, Marino NM, Mentzer KM, Gollust SE. The evolution of controversy about mammography screening: A content analysis of four publicized screening recommendations, 2009-2016. Women’s Health Issues. 2019; 29(1): 87-95.

Qin X, Nagler RH, Fowler EF, Gollust SE. U.S. women’s perceived importance of the harms and benefits of mammograms and associations with screening ambivalence: Results from a national survey. Preventive Medicine. 2019; 123: 130-137.

Saulsberry L, Fowler EF, Nagler RH, Gollust SE. Politicization of cancer prevention and preferences for HPV vaccine policies. Vaccine. In press.

Gollust, Fowler, and Nagler


American Cancer Society, grant #RSG-14-166-01-CPPB

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