Fairfax ‘click bait’ does it no favours

A lot of people like to hold out the Fairfax media as some sort of bastion of quality journalism. But if Fairfax is trying to carve a niche as the ‘quality’ news source, it might want to steer away from the sort of click bait journalism it engaged in today.

Here’s the morning headline from the SMH, and a similar snapshot from the Canberra Times.  

   Now let’s hone in on that cancer story…


A new report suggests almost one in three people may be affected.

O. M. G.   One in three people affected. That sounds really really bad.

But it says affected. That’s a bit of a give away that we might not be talking about your actual risk of cancer.

My initial suspicion was this was going to be one of those statistics inflated by counting family and friends of someone with cancer in the ‘affected’ group.

Not this time though. Instead they’ve come up with a different way to creatively ‘affect’ a large number of people. When we click in to the article itself, we find out what’s really going on here. 

You see it’s been estimated that  in ten years time, about a third of the population will be in the age group most at risk of bowel cancer.

In ten years time.

In the age group most at risk.

We’re not talking about currently at risk. We’re not even talking about the actual incidence of bowel cancer within the at risk age group.

Fairfax is headlining with a one in three cancer risk, based on a third of the population being in that age group – ten years from now.

So what’s the real risk from bowel cancer?

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has a page full of bowel cancer statistics. The key takeout from these statistics is that while bowel cancer is certainly something we need to be aware of, the Fairfax headline is arguably overblown.

According to the AIHW data for 2015, someone who lives to age 85 will have a 1 in 12 chance of contracting bowel cancer over their lifetime. 

And as the table from the above AIHW site indicates, most of this risk kicks in at age sixty and above. For those under sixty, your chance of bowel cancer in any given year is less than one in a thousand. And if you’re under forty, it’s less than one in ten thousand chance in any given year.


Bowel cancer is a risk, but scare mongering is not quality journalism

There’s no doubt that with an aging population, bowel cancer is a disease that is going to impact an increasing number of people. But this appears to reflect the demographics of our population rather than a significant increase in the incidence of bowel cancer itself.

Headline claims that bowel cancer will affect one in three Australian’s overstates the risk the typical Australian faces. One can’t help suspect that if these sorts of numbers were being put forward by a mining company, rather than Bowel Cancer Australia, they’d be subject to more scrutiny. If not-for-profits are going to compete for societies resources (and taxpayer dollars) using these sorts of tactics,  they should expect to be subject to scrutiny.

At best, the overstated headlines run by Fairfax undermine their attempts to be seen as a ‘quality’ news source. At worst, it hints at a potential hypocrisy, subjecting certain groups and causes to less scrutiny than others.

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