Headlines, hype and hope: How should we talk about cancer research?

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Published: 23 Nov 2016
Views: 2725
Dr Kat Arney - Freelance Science Broadcaster

Dr Arney speaks with ecancertv at NCRI 2016 about how media portrayal of the causes and treatments of cancer can influence public perception of cancer research.

She describes the need for matched media awareness in academia and realistic portrayals of research in public spheres, with narrative opportunities in fiction and nonfiction programming.

In my talk I really wanted to highlight some of the ways that stories about cancer get into the media, how they’re covered and then how we can make them better. I started with the classic idea of maybe what people think about when they think about cancer stories in the media, the typical ‘This causes cancer, this cures cancer,’ when stories are overhyped. Maybe there are tales of how broccoli can cure cancer and things like that or my particular favourite – how going to the toilet at night will give you cancer. These create a lot of confusion, they cause a bit of disillusionment in the research process – what do experts know if they can’t decide whether cheese causes or prevents cancer? So I wanted to unpick how do these stories actually get into the media? It’s not that journalists are making them up, it’s that actually often scientists, research funders, organisations, are giving stories to the media in the form of press releases. These can be covered well, they can be covered badly or they may be a bit over-hyped in the first place. We’ve ended up in this sort of four-way tangle with scientists, funders, journals and the media all going, ‘Yes, we need more stories, we need to cover this, we need to cover this in more outrageous or click-worthy ways,’ and no-one is really willing to pull out.

What I’m really hoping is that we can try and shift to maybe a more sophisticated, maybe a braver way of talking about cancer and about cancer research that we don’t have all the answers, we don’t have black and white solutions to everything, and try and move the conversation in a more sophisticated way.

How can we get scientists and media working more effectively together?

I’ve talked to scientists in the past who have said, ‘Oh, the media is just terrible. You look at the Daily Mail and it’s just full of all these rubbish stories.’ Then you say, ‘Well, when your press office ever approaches you, have you engaged with them? Have you ever spoken to a journalist?’ ‘Oh no, I would never do that.’ Well, you only have yourself to blame if you won’t engage. It’s not that journalists are all bad or all trying to trip everyone up; journalists generally want to write good, accurate stories that appeal to their readership and, yes, get eyes on the page, get clicks on the page. But scientists can think about what actually makes a good story. Maybe it’s not that you’ve discovered a protein that sticks to another protein that drives cancer cells but is there a fantastic case study, is there a story about the research that led to this? Is this wow, is this interesting, is this really going to pave the way for a new treatment or a better understanding of cancer? Think with a bit more of a journalist hat on about what would actually make a great story and then be prepared to engage and also be prepared to just give it a go. It might be a bit scary, it might not always work out but the more that scientists are engaged and encouraged through their press offices, through their media offices, through science communication teams to get closer, to really be part of the media part of our culture, that’s going to be a good thing for everyone.

We need to find the right balance between the wishes of scientists and the wishes of the public…

There can definitely feel like a mismatch between the public idea of how science progresses – it’s a new drug, it’s an amazing wow thing, it’s a big science advance – and the day to day reality of you’ve published a paper that’s made a small step forward or found something. Sometimes there are really big important papers and big findings and sometimes there are smaller findings so maybe it is going to be the bigger findings that will grab the headlines. But I do think it’s important that we need to try and get more of an understanding in the public just about the process of science and scientists as real, normal people who are trying to use a particular way of viewing the world, the scientific method, scientific research, of understanding what’s going on in our bodies, what’s going on in disease. So I’d like to see more people in TV shows who are just scientists, it’s not a massive lynchpin of their character, they’re not the weird nerdy person but they just come at things with a scientific problem-solving attitude. And more understanding in the public, all the way through from schools to the general public of this is how science works – we find out stuff, we ask questions, we test things. We don’t suddenly have a eureka moment and there’s the new drug.

Could you tell us about your “bake off” analogy?

TV shows can be a fantastic way of getting science to the public without ramming it down their throat with the word science. What I hate about some science communication it’s like, ‘Ooh here’s the science bit,’ and some people are just turned off by the very word science. I’m turned off by the word football, I don’t like it at all, but the idea that can we just bring in scientific ideas and concepts about research, about questioning, about making a hypothesis and testing it, about what is evidence that something works or something works in this way or that a treatment works. I’ve recently very much got into Bake Off but I would have loved to have seen a bit more about just what’s going on. Why is it that you don’t put salt with yeast? What is the reaction that’s happening? Why do eggs make your sponge rise? Why does yeast work in that way? Soap operas as well are a fantastic way of bringing science story lines, particularly through characters that are affected by diseases, particularly things like cancer. But can we just bring in a little bit more? Maybe they’re on a clinical trial, maybe someone’s actually trying to find out how a treatment works or why you shouldn’t just take someone’s advice off the internet compared to your doctor’s. I’d like to see some more of this coming through.

Any further thoughts?

I’ve been working in science communication, in science journalism on both sides of this fence for probably about fifteen years now or so. In that time there has been incredible progress in the ways that we talk about science with the public. There are science museums, open days, blogs, podcasts, YouTube channels, all sorts of things that are really incredible science communication. There’s a Facebook group called I Freaking Love Science that has more fans than the entire population of Australia – people love science. But it’s a group of the public that freaking loves science and we are doing an amazing job of informing them about progress of reinforcing their belief in science as the best way we have of understanding the world. Then there’s a group of people, and maybe this is an overlapping group with the group that Michael Gove said are sick of experts, who it’s just not part of their lives and there’s this idea of capital. They have no science capital – they don’t know people who are scientists, science is just not part of their experience. That doesn’t mean that they are stupid or don’t understand or don’t want to know, it’s just not part of their lives. So we’re not really getting through to them and in that case it’s even using words like, ‘This is the science bit, here’s some science, come to a science weekend…’ no, that’s not going to work. So we need to think of cleverer, subtler ways of just bringing a bit more about science, about evidence, about how research works that science and technology here in the UK is doing amazing things in people’s lives. Just start to get people to see that a bit more in their daily lives.