A vintage year for cancer journalism worldwide

Simon Crompton

You might have thought there would be huge variations in cancer journalism from countries as diverse as Algeria, Australia, Brazil, Cameroon, China, Costa Rica, Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan, Romania, Russia and Sweden.

You might have thought that differences in media regulation, cultural norms and public expectations would mean that journalists from country to country would be very different in what they wanted to, or what they could, explore.

But reading through every one of the 145 entries to the 2016 Cancer World Journalism Awards, what struck me most was not the variations, but the similarities in what journalists are trying to achieve internationally. I was on the panel of judges assessing the entries, and we announced the winners late last year.

There are, of course, differences in style – and journalism has taken very different historical routes from country to country. But what emerged from all the award entries was a common seriousness of purpose – a will to make things better for people with cancer by asking questions and challenging. That questioning is the fundamental principle of good journalism, and nearly every entry to the 2016 awards adhered to it.

Is it right that people in Germany are being given chemotherapy without DNA testing to see whether they will benefit? Why are so many cancer patients awaiting radiotherapy in Kenya? Or suffering terrible pain in India? What’s the real story about the alleged link between talcum powder and ovarian cancer in China?

Those are just three of the scores of questions about cancer being asked by journalists from continent to continent.

It hasn’t always been like this. Through its journalism awards, the European School of Oncology has been encouraging high standards of journalism since 2006. Why? Because it is a journalist’s job to be independent, ask questions, analyse and explain. The outsider’s view of a journalist combats complacency in health care, reminding everyone that more can always be done.

But even five years ago, cancer coverage was dominated by stories that gained impact by scaring people, or raising false hope, or portraying those with cancer as victors or victims. That type of health journalism still persists but, if the entries to this year’s awards are anything to go by, it is becoming rarer – not just in Europe but around the whole world.

Maybe it’s a mark of globalisation – of journalists and their readers now being able to access so much information across national boundaries that there are now widely shared expectations of what the media should be doing. Certainly, the growth of online outlets seems to have made good journalism far more visible than it was in the past.

But as the worldwide web also provides an increasing readership for extreme views and misleading information, the role of good journalists to present facts and investigate responsibly is becoming more and more important.  People with cancer need them.

Have you been impressed by the quality of a cancer story you’ve come across in print, online, television or radio? Let us know in the comments section. Nominations for the 2017 Cancer World Journalism Award open in June 2017, and Cancer World also offers grants to journalists.

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