Do cancer scare stories give you the Daily Mail?

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.

4 thoughts on “Do cancer scare stories give you the Daily Mail?

  1. If geeky stats are your thing I spent a few days recently reading every Richard Littlejohn article from 2008, adding up how many times he used the word ‘Nazi’ as a suffix, how many times he used the word ‘Muslim’ – over 70 times in just 97 articles – and the fact that 40 articles out of 97 mentioned gay people – the overwhleming majority in a very negative way. Click here for the full ‘audit’ if you’re interested:

  2. the hacks, with a much juicier, PR-friendly story on their hands, were too busy to write them up or even care

    I suspect this is close to the reason, but not quite focused in the right way. It’s likely to be an editorial issue – a question of balancing the content of the newspaper, making sure that you don’t have too many stories on similar topics. So the cancer-related health stories may be more likely to be dropped when they’d be close to a Jade story in the paper, for fear of making it too cancer-heavy. I don’t know how many health stories are written solely for the Mail’s website, and how much just comes from the paper – it would be interesting to see if more of the stories during the Jade era were web originals rather than paper originals (the same restrictions not really applying on the web).

    Out of interest, were the Mail’s total mentions of cancer on your Google News alert (i.e. including the ones you discarded for not being relevant to the blog) up, down, or roughly stable during the second 34 days? It’s also likely that lots of the ‘cancer slots’ (to use a somewhat inelegant shorthand) in the paper’s health coverage during that time might have been about screening, rather than cause/cure stories, so weren’t included on the (N)DMOOP.

  3. Interesting….I think its only time before the Mail links cancer to any Government left of Hitler. Having laid my anti-Mail credentials out for for all, I for one would like to see some comparables: perhaps with the lower end of the market (Sun, Mirror) and indeed the top end (Grauniad, Times, Telegraph). Is the Mail the only paper in love with cancer? and how did other rags coverage of cancer in general alter with the Jade parade.

  4. Tom – yes, undoubtedly the limited resource (even online) of space and a maximum ‘cancer quota’ played their part too, but the very existence (unofficially) of the ‘right’ amount of cancer coverage goes some way to supporting my argument. As for total Mail mentions of cancer, I think the raw total was definitely up because of multiple stories about Jade Goody, but my feeling for the number of cancer-related topics (i.e. counting all Jade Goody coverage as just one topic) was that it was about the same.

    Rapscallion – good question, may worth be exploring if I get a bit of time. But a quick look at Google News suggests that the Telegraph and Guardian are up there too (226 and 171 mentions of cancer this past month, compared to 175 for the Mail). The Independent and the Express are much lower with 58 and 90 respectively. But bear in mind that Jade does sway the figures somewhat, these are all articles with the word ‘cancer’ in them, even if it isn’t the main focus (e.g. Michelle Obama visiting a cancer ward at a hospital), and it is total search results from Google News, so there may be duplicates or dud links. I haven’t the time to do anything systematic like I did with the Mail.

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