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African-American news publications may not be telling the whole truth about cancer care.

This finding was reported in a recent study by researchers in the Perelman School of Medicine and the Annenberg School of Communication.

The study claims that blacks who receive health information from African-American publications are three times less likely to learn about certain aspects of cancer treatment than if they would have relied on mainstream publications in the United States.

Health information often extends beyond the factual, professor Frances Barg, who teaches medical anthropology courses at Penn, explained. It can also include “general impressions” that are created about different diseases based on what people read.

“To our knowledge, this is the first study [that] systematically examines racial differences in news coverage to investigate how differences may influence end-of-life care preferences,” lead researcher Jessica Fishman and other authors of the study including David Casarett and Thomas Ten Have wrote in the medical journal Cancer.

“After learning that certain topics are not being communicated in the news media, and especially by some types of news media, I want to better understand effects of exposure,” Fishman wrote in an email.

Fishman and her colleagues analyzed more than 600 cancer news stories, appearing in both mainstream and African-American media. Examples of African-American publications examined include Essence magazine and The Philadelphia Tribune. Mainstream publications included The New York Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer. These allowed Fishman to question “if the news media contribute to the problem by providing too much hope and hype, and not enough help.”

“Cultural cues inform the way we think about and categorize different kinds of diseases,” Barg said. She added that these indicators can affect the way people conceptualize diseases.

“If different media messages lead to different preferences, communication may play a role in decision making,” the authors of the study wrote in Cancer.

Fishman talked about a woman who had lost her husband to cancer and explained that hope, portrayed in some media instead of the realities of cancer, caused her additional pain.

“She reflected that if she had been given realistic information, that she and her husband could have spent their last days at home around their children, instead of staying in the hospital with painful regimens,” she wrote.

“Its important for students and people in general to understand how attitudes and meanings about illnesses get constructed,” Barg said. She added that this type of research is important because it “shines some light on gaps that we otherwise might not see.”

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