Study shows the mammography wars as curated by Google News

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The U.S. Preventive Service Task Force’s 2009 screening-mammography recommendation—every other year for average-risk women aged 50 to 74—opened the floodgates of the “when to start/how often to repeat” controversy that’s been percolating ever since. A study published online in Academic Radiology shows how the disharmony has played out in online news coverage.

Leng Leng Young Lin, MD, and Andrew Rosenkrantz, MD, of New York University searched Google News (news.google.com) for U.S.-based outlets reporting on mammography between 2006 and 2015.

They found a marked polarization in articles’ stance following the USPSTF milestone recommendation, with pro-screening mammography stories easily outpacing not only those casting the exams in a questionable light but also screening-neutral stories.

In the years prior to the recommendation, neutrality was the order of the day, Lin and Rosenkrantz report.

In the most recent year the authors looked at, 2015, a strong majority of articles, 59 percent, were favorable toward screening mammography while 16 percent were unfavorable and 25 percent were neutral.

The most common major theme over the nine-year study period was the screening mammography controversy itself (29 percent), the authors found.

This was followed by coverage of new breast imaging technologies (23 percent), dense breasts (11 percent) and screening promotions (11 percent).

As for who was doing the covering, the top 100 search results came from local news outlets (50 percent), national news outlets (24 percent), nonimaging medical sources (13 percent), entertainment or culture news outlets (6 percent), business news outlets (4 percent), peer-reviewed journals (1 percent) and radiology news outlets (1 percent).

Among their study’s limitations, Lin and Rosenkrantz note their reliance on online news sources, to the exclusion of print and broadcast, as well as their use of subjective classifications of articles as favorable, unfavorable or neutral.

The authors encourage physicians to look beyond medical journals and academic forums to consider how the daily news may influence patients’ health decision-making at the population level.

“[P]opular news may have a large impact on the public perception of a given topic, and in the case of screening mammography, potentially even impact guideline adherence,” they write. “Thus, radiologists are also encouraged to maintain a close awareness of such news coverage, supporting the online dissemination of reliable and accurate information, if not directly participating in the discourse.”