Research Brief: Breast Cancer Representations in Canadian News Media: A Critical Discourse Analysis of Meanings and the Implications for Identity

Research Briefs Box This study explores the cultural construction of breast cancer within Canada’s two national newspapers. The  two primary discourses in circulation were biomedicine and healthism, and both were associated with the roles of “breast cancer survivor,” “the good consumer,” and the “medical expert.” After presenting the analyses, the authors discuss the psychological, social, political, and health promotion implications of their findings.

Kerry McGannon and colleagues used critical discourse analysis to examine the content and socio-cultural and political contexts of 25 detailed news stories along with related breast cancer images and advertisements in Canada’s two national newspapers, National Post and The Globe and Mail. To capture the buildup and aftereffects of breast cancer awareness month (designated as October in both Canada and the U.S.), they collected data from September 15 to November 4, 2012. They considered how language used in mass media is tied to discursive and social practices; the interrelationships between power, discourse, and subject position; and the implications of each for self-identity. The discourses of biomedicine and healthism worked in conjunction with the subject positions of breast cancer survivor, good consumer, and medical expert to privilege technoscience and regulate women’s health, ultimately serving the medical industry itself.

Biomedical Discourse (Privileging Technoscience): Instead of viewing breast cancer as a complex production of biological and societal factors, the media construction of breast cancer relied almost completely on biomedical discourse (e.g., medically defined as a biological condition that can be prevented, treated, and eradicated strictly through technoscientific means.) Thus, there is a moral imperative for developing cutting-edge knowledge via research and technology to regulate women’s health primarily through high-tech risk surveillance and interventions that serve certain interests (e.g., researchers, drug companies, radiologists, the medical system).

A Discourse of Healthism: Women’s consumption of technoscience was further reinforced with a discourse that emphasized self-governance, individual responsibility, and self-control to regulate one’s health. In urging women to control their cancer risk and/or the effects of treatment by becoming “good consumers” of health services, health information and/or cause related marketing efforts, women were cast as being personally, socially, and morally responsible for demonstrating their ability to maintain their health.

Survivors, Consumers, and Experts

The “breast cancer survivor” within media stories reinforced the privileging of technoscience and women’s consumption of medical services to manage health responsibly, thus creating space for women without breast cancer to become more aware and potentially become good consumers. “Breast cancer survivors emerged as young, heterosexual, vibrant, feminine, white women who were positioned as she-ros, who are superwomen, that fight breast cancer and its effects with style, strength, courage, and resolve, and despite tremendous difficulties, emerge as transformed to share lessons learned.” Not all of these she-roic survivors were cast as triumphant, however.

For both survivors and women without breast cancer, the “good consumer” reinforced medical authority, individual responsibility, and self-regulation through the consumption of medicine and technoscience and/or pink ribbon culture. The survivor identity itself reminded women to be good consumers of cutting edge technoscience in order to responsibly regulate their health. But they could also demonstrate good consumership with the purchase of pink products and/or donations of time and money for research.

The subject position of “medical expert” within the two discourses created a particular space for the medical researcher, research center/institute, or physician to privilege technoscience and medical advice. In doing so, the expert upholds the values of healthism and the idea that women should take care of and manage their breast cancer risk through the responsible health practices they espouse (e.g., screening, gaining medical knowledge, consumption of medical interventions). Despite the theme of personal responsibility, authority ultimately resides with those who have recognized credentials, medical science knowledge, or training.

Background and Implications

As medicine has become a form of mass consumption and core component of the economy, there has been an ideological shift from “patient” to “medical consumer.” This role is grounded in a tension between expert knowledge (privileged in biomedicine) and individual agency (central to a culture of healthism that is preoccupied with personal health via lifestyle as the primary means for achieving well-being). The proliferation of medical information and personal illness narratives throughout mass media and health advocacy efforts have advanced lay knowledge about medicine and treatment while simultaneously promoting individual responsibility and introducing uncertainty about options, outcomes, and choices.

As a result, the discourses of biomedicine and healthism together pave the way for inequality of access to quality medical information and truly informed decision-making (as specialized information gets dispersed through clearinghouses or expert bodies that dictate its type and quality but are not necessarily free of conflicts of interest or based in the best evidence). In addition, the medical system determines the options available to patients/consumers and, with ownership of the professional knowledge that informs the prevailing discourse, limits the decisions medical consumers can make– a hallmark of medicalization.

Mass media has been a significant vehicle for disseminating breast cancer’s social status and cultural meanings for decades. But analyses of mass media also reveal taken for granted assumptions and prevailing meanings about the disease within the context of prevailing discourses such as biomedicine, healthism, and others.

Source: Kerry R. McGannon, Tanya R. Berry, Wendy M. Rodgers & John C. Spence. 2016. “Breast cancer representations in Canadian news media: a critical discourse analysis of meanings and the implications for identity.” Qualitative Research in Psychology, 13:2, 188-207, DOI: 10.1080/14780887.2016.1145774.

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