If the public is to understand the world of cancer research and treatment they need translators to turn scientific jargon into simple, clear and accurate information. And yes, they do exist. They are called journalists!
ESO supported 14 health journalists from TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, online publications and news agencies across Europe to attend the ESMO 2014 Congress in Madrid in September.
A top line of experts came and talked to this group on precision medicine, the role of diagnostics, immunotherapy, the changing face of clinical trials and the implications for patient care. The journalists, only some of whom have science degrees, asked sharp questions: How many drugs make a real difference? How can we tell when researchers are over-promoting results?
Reporting for a lay audience
Later they shared valuable insights into the challenges of reporting on cancer for a lay audience.
Rinke Van den Brink, a health editor for NOS News, the Netherlands national public broadcaster, has a mixed public of “University professors and people who have barely finished primary school.” He describes himself as “a simple journalist who learned to ask questions” and says that if he cannot explain the science in simple terms, it will probably not make it onto the news.
Maria Pineiro, health reporter on El Progreso the Spanish regional newspaper (with 150,000 readers a day) focuses on significant treatments, whether the health system will pay and the social consequences of having cancer, rather than about drugs the Spanish economy cannot afford. “I do not see the point of writing about something that my readers are not going to get.”
Anja Gorenc who reports on health for the Slovenia Press Agency (STA), says that most of the best stories do not come from press releases. “I communicate a lot with other people because I am a journalist. I talk about health problems with my friends, my relatives and that is how I get ideas.”
Emanuela Schweninger, health correspondent for Realitatea TV in Romania, points out that television demands emotional impact as well as expert information. “In Romania we have 50,000 patients who need radiotherapy and only 12 machines in all the country. So if I am a patient who needs radiotherapy now, I need to wait three or four months … and this is a tragedy.
“I love my job. For me to be health correspondent is part of my life….. My mum has cancer so I know exactly what it means and I try every day to help patients who need my help.”
All the journalists benefited from talking to experts at ESMO and many made new contacts with specialists from their own countries. KateTreshchikova, health correspondent for the Russian regional newspaper, Voronezh Messenger, said: “Together I think we can change the situation in our region with oncology.”
Keeping it real
However, they expressed caution about “breakthroughs”. Italian science writer, Marco Boscolo, said: “We have a social responsibility in that we don’t have to provide false hope for people.” And Maria Pineiro, delighted to have learned so much about emerging treatments, stressed the need for realism. “Everybody is trying so hard [but]…. I think we are quite far away from real new treatments that can make cancer a chronic disease which is the main goal I think of most oncologists and researchers.”
These journalists combine a drive to explain the science with a strong sense of humanity. Researchers, clinicians and other experts would do well to watch these short interviews to understand the challenges they face.Please click on the faces to view each video