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Using superlatives in the media for cancer drugs

October 29, 2015

The use of superlatives to describe cancer drugs in news articles as "breakthrough," "revolutionary," "miracle" or in other grandiose terms was common even when drugs were not yet approved, had no clinical data or not yet shown overall survival benefits, according to an article published online by JAMA Oncology.

The omission of medical context or the use of inflated descriptions can lead to misunderstandings among readers. Vinay Prasad, M.D., M.P.H., of the Oregon Health & Science University, Portland, and coauthors examined the use of modest and superlative descriptors in news articles regarding cancer drugs.

The authors searched for 10 superlatives (breakthrough, game changer, miracle, cure, home run, revolutionary, transformative, life saver, groundbreaking and marvel) in conjunction with the term "cancer drug" in a Google news search earlier this year between June 21 and June 25. The authors found 94 articles from 66 news outlets with 97 superlative mentions meeting the study criteria and referring to 36 specific drugs. Half of the drugs described had not yet received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for at least one indication.

The most common class of drugs referenced was targeted therapy (17 of 36), nine cytotoxic drugs, five immunotherapy checkpoint inhibitors, three cancer vaccines, one radiotherapy and one gene therapy. Superlatives were used most often to refer to targeted therapy and an immunologic checkpoint inhibitor. For 5 of the 36 drugs (14 percent), superlatives were used in the absence of clinical data, according to the results.

Most of the 97 superlatives were used by journalists (55 percent); physicians (27 percent); industry experts (9 percent); patients (8 percent) and one member of Congress (1 percent). In 55 percent of the cases, the superlative was used by the author of the article without any other attribution.

"A range of speakers used superlatives but the majority were journalists (55 percent), who may not have the expertise to identify the most promising medical therapies, or what magnitude of benefit warrants a superlative. The use of superlatives is common in cancer research news articles. Some of this use may be questioned," the authors conclude.
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(JAMA Oncol. Published online October 29, 2015. doi:10.1001/jamaoncol.2015.3931. Available pre-embargo to the media at http://media.jamanetwork.com.)

Editor's Note: Please see the article for additional information, including other authors, author contributions and affiliations, financial disclosures, funding and support, etc.

Media Advisory: To contact corresponding author Vinay Prasad, M.D., M.P.H., call Amanda Gibbs at 503-494-8231 or email gibbam@ohsu.edu.

The JAMA Network Journals

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