Newswise — The public may have problems this week sorting through news articles about a government task force’s opposition to routine mammograms for women under 50 and articles about breast cancer survivors touting the benefits of early mammograms. But to properly interpret the news, the public must learn to balance the research with the anecdotal evidence says University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Associate Professor of English Cynthia Ryan, Ph.D.

Ryan studies how breast cancer is portrayed in the media and is the author of a forthcoming book on the rhetoric of breast cancer in popular women’s magazines.

“I think that news coverage on this recent debate has been fairly effective, but as expected, there is room for readers to misinterpret what they are reading,” says Ryan, who points to two New York Times articles published on the same day: one dealing with the findings of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) arguing that routine mammograms should begin after age 49, and another article offering one woman’s stance that early mammograms save lives.

“I’d say the media is doing a decent job of covering both sides of the debate,” says Ryan. “What can be problematic for readers, however, is the seeming contradiction between two polarized perspectives: either keep the screening guidelines the same or change them.

“Consumers are best able to make sound decisions about their health when these polarized messages are integrated and reflect the complexity of the disease,” she says. “It’s not an either-or conversation.”

Ryan says that when confronted with extreme representations, there is a part of the human brain that wants to go with scientific study “because we figure it must be credible and rational,” she says. “But another part of our brain embraces anecdotal advice that links the message with a face.

“Not surprisingly, consumers are torn. But informed health consumers have to take in both kinds of evidence. Both are credible and offer a needed perspective that can affect decision-making.”

The bottom line, says Ryan: Look at all of the evidence, the research and the anecdotes as part of one big conversation as opposed to conflicting advice. You’ll be better informed when making a decision that’s right for you.

“Read all of the coverage,” she says. “Talk to your doctor. Know your risk factors. Understand that you are going to face different kinds of advice and you have to weigh those and determine what the best choices are for you.”

About the UAB Department of EnglishThe UAB Department of English offers an undergraduate degree in English with concentrations in creative writing, linguistics or professional writing and public discourse, and graduate degrees in literature, rhetoric and composition, and creative writing.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) is a separate, independent institution from the University of Alabama, which is located in Tuscaloosa. Please use University of Alabama at Birmingham on first reference and UAB on all consecutive references.