One of the little things I’ve been running since the New Year is The (New) Daily Mail Oncological Ontology Project, a project devoted to tracking “the Daily Mail’s classification of inanimate objects into two types: those that cause cancer, and those that cure it.” It is a resurrection of The Daily Mail Oncological Ontology Project, started by an anonymous person (I have no idea who) and sadly defunct.
While this may look spectacularly anoraky, thanks to mah geek skills, it doesn’t take up much of my time; I have a simple Google News feed for anything with the word ‘cancer’ in it from the Daily Mail, and I autopost any relevant ones to Tumblr with a simple bookmarklet. Two minutes of my time, most days.
I’ve been going at this since the start of the new year, and I’ve realised after three months that there’s some interesting data. Most pertinent is the frequency of these stories at particular times. Here beginneth the geekery, after manually counting through the archives:
For the period January 12th (when I started the Tumblelog) to February 14th (34 days, inclusive), there were 26 cancer scare or cure stories on the Daily Mail website (that’s 0.76 a day). In the same time period – i.e. 34 days – afterward, from February 15th (up to & including March 21st) there were 14 (only 0.41 a day). In fact, in the month of March entirely, there were only 9 (0.29 a day).
What happened on February 14th? That day, this news broke:
Jade Goody ‘has months to live’
Jade Goody has been told she has only months to live, her publicist Max Clifford has said. Mr Clifford said doctors at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London broke the news to the former reality television star on Friday
Undoubtedly, Jade Goody’s plight had been charted in the press since her initial diagnosis back in August 2008. But with the news of her imminent death, the volume of Jade-related coverage shot up – from 28 stories mentioning her between January 12th and February 14th, to 66 between February 15th and March 21st.
So, as coverage of Jade’s cancer shot up, coverage of the speculative pseudo-science of “will x cure/cause cancer?” plummeted. Did the cancer researchers, whose findings are swallowed and regurgitated as cast iron fact by Mail hacks, suddenly stop publishing their research, out of respect for Jade? Or was it business as usual – the research still being published, but the hacks, with a much juicier, PR-friendly story on their hands, were too busy to write them up or even care? Not much chance of it being the former, I reckon.
If that is the reason, it absolves the Daily Mail of the accusation (as outlined in last week’s Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe) laid against the press: that the excessive coverage of Jade Goody’s death would only alarm and upset cancer sufferers and their families, something that only serves to hamper them in their battle against the disease.
But the Daily Mail weren’t irresponsible in their sensational Jade Goody coverage. No, they’re irresponsible all the bloody time. The truth of the matter is that the Daily Mail loves to scare the fuck out of you about cancer no matter when. And if there isn’t a celebrity slowly dying in the news for them to gawp at, then they’ll resort to publishing anything they can find with the word ‘cancer’ in it. It doesn’t matter if it cures it or gives you it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a dying reality TV star or a paper on the dietary effects of cabbages. As long as the spectre of the disease is there to keep you on your toes (that is, if you haven’t lost them to cancer), then they’ll use it against you.