Media messages about cancer: what do people understand?

J Health Commun. 2010;15 Suppl 2(Suppl 2):126-45. doi: 10.1080/10810730.2010.499983.


Health messages on television and other mass media have the potential to significantly influence the public's health-related knowledge and behaviors, but little is known about people's ability to comprehend such messages. To investigate whether people understood the spoken information in media messages about cancer prevention and screening, we recruited 44 adults from 3 sites to view 6 messages aired on television and the internet. Participants were asked to paraphrase main points and selected phrases. Qualitative analysis methods were used to identify what content was correctly and accurately recalled and paraphrased, and to describe misunderstandings and misconceptions. While most participants accurately recalled and paraphrased the gist of the messages used here, overgeneralization (e.g., believing preventative behaviors to be more protective than stated), loss of details (e.g., misremembering the recommended age for screening), and confusion or misunderstandings around specific concepts (e.g., interpreting "early stage" as the stage in one's life rather than cancer stage) were common. Variability in the public's ability to understand spoken media messages may limit the effectiveness of both pubic health campaigns and provider-patient communication. Additional research is needed to identify message characteristics that enhance understandability and improve comprehension of spoken media messages about cancer.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Comprehension*
  • Early Detection of Cancer
  • Female
  • Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice*
  • Humans
  • Internet
  • Male
  • Mass Media*
  • Middle Aged
  • Neoplasms / prevention & control*
  • Public Opinion
  • Qualitative Research
  • Television