Spikes in News Coverage Linked to Increased Knowledge About HPV and Cervical Cancer

In the months leading up to and just following the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine in 2006, an increase in the volume of news coverage over time was associated with changes in the public’s knowledge about HPV and cervical cancer. However, a new study reveals that many news stories were missing important information, including the sexually transmitted nature of the disease.

These were some of the findings from a study by a team of researchers with the Center of Excellence in Cancer Communication Research (CECCR) at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication. The team looked at 321 news stories (print and broadcast) that appeared over a 12-month period in 2006 and conducted a national survey of more than 3,300 individuals to study the nature of news coverage of the HPV vaccine and whether knowledge about HPV was affected by it.

Results of the study appeared in the November issue of the journal Patient Education and Counseling. The study was conducted by Annenberg alumna Bridget J. Kelly, Ph.D.; former CECCR researchers Amy E. Leader, Ph.D. and Danielle J. Mittermaier, M.A.; and Penn Professors Robert C. Hornik, Ph.D., and Joseph N. Cappella, Ph.D. (Note: CECCR is funded by the National Cancer Institute.)

The news story analysis and survey took place around the time that the HPV vaccine was approved by the government in the spring of 2006. Stories were collected on HPV or cervical cancer from18 newspapers with the highest readership in the United States, four broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN), and the Associated Press. The time frame for these stories covered December 2005 to November 2006. The survey was conducted through the Annenberg National Health Communication Survey (ANHCS), a joint effort of the Annenberg schools for communication at Penn and at the University of Southern California.

More than three-quarters of all HPV vaccine news stories reported about the HPV vaccine said nothing about the sexually transmitted nature of HPV, and nearly 80 percent of all news coverage neglected to report the need for continued cervical cancer screening after vaccination.

The survey results showed that about 35 percent of the sample knew about the association between the HPV virus and cervical cancer in the period before May 2006. By June through August of that year, that number had grown to 52 percent, and by the final two months of 2006, the number increased to 59 percent.

The news story content analysis showed that the vaccine was extensively covered, but “coverage was not always ideal, with the majority of news stories lacking vital pieces of information about the vaccine or HPV prevention,” the authors wrote. “If media content is going to be used in the context of decision making, then stories need to include accurate and balanced information regarding risks and benefits.”

Half of the story headlines mentioned “cervical cancer” while the term “sexually transmitted infection” or “STI” appeared in only 3.6 percent of the stories. Seventy-three percent of the news stories were from print sources while 27 percent were broadcast on television. Newspaper stories were more likely than broadcast to stress the need for routine cervical cancer screening after vaccination.

“There is substantial support … that the media plays an important role in the education of the public, particularly when the topic is about new medical applications,” the authors continued. “People will undoubtedly improve their knowledge about the vaccine and the link between HPV and cervical cancer as they are increasingly exposed to newspaper articles and television reports regarding HPV. Therefore, journalists have a crucial role in presenting comprehensive stories, so as not to misinform readers or foster false conclusions.”

The authors said that physicians “must be vigilant about filling in the gaps” from incomplete news stories, since people who “focus only on general news stories can miss important information.”