WJLA to break taboos in breast-cancer detection education

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 29, 2009

TV news reports about breast-cancer detection and treatment are common, though usually discreet, with female breasts typically depicted only in X-rays or tastefully draped.

But in a four-part report on the disease beginning Thursday night, WJLA, Channel 7 in Washington, will break TV's unspoken taboo by showing two women fully exposed on its late-afternoon and evening newscasts.

The station says its reports are meant to encourage proper breast self-examination, and are being aired in conjunction with National Breast Cancer Awareness month, which ends Saturday.

WJLA acknowledges, however, that the timing of its stories may raise some eyebrows: The reports will air on the first two days of TV's traditional "sweeps" month, a period in which stations air their most eye-catching stories to boost ratings that are used to set advertising rates.

WJLA general manager Bill Lord said he had no qualms about the timing of the reports, or in promoting them beforehand. "People will say we're doing it just for ratings," he said. "But we're a commercial television station -- we're trying to get people to watch us. Yes, this is an attention-getting story, but it's also an important story."

Lord said the station consulted medical experts who said news reports on breast-cancer detection haven't offered enough detail to teach people how to do an exam properly.

The station's first report features a 28-year-old woman from Northern Virginia, Lauren Albright, who volunteered to be led through an on-camera self-exam by an oncologist. She is shown examining her bare torso in a mirror and on an examination table, in both close-up and medium shots. Reporter Gail Pennybacker says in a voice-over that Albright took the "extraordinary step of baring herself" to teach women how to do the exam.

Albright, a nurse who lives in Alexandria, said it was "empowering" to tell her story on camera. "I'm not looking to change the world," she said, "but if one person benefits, I'm happy." Albright said a breast self-exam helped her catch her cancer early. She underwent a bilateral mastectomy after the TV report was filmed in early October, and now faces four months of chemotherapy. She says her prognosis is good.

Another local woman, who declined to have her name or face broadcast on the air, will also be featured in a similar examination.

Although CBS ran afoul of the Federal Communications Commission for airing Janet Jackson's breast-baring "wardrobe malfunction" during the 2004 Super Bowl, WJLA isn't at risk of government sanction because news reports are exempt from the FCC's "indecency" rules.

Representatives of the American Cancer Society said they were unaware of other stations airing similarly frank reports. The organization's spokeswoman had no comment on WJLA's approach to the subject.

Breast cancer is among the most common cancers in women, and among the deadliest, causing more than 40,000 deaths a year. The American Cancer Society says the chances of a woman having invasive breast cancer at some point in her life are about 1 in 8, and the chances of dying from the disease are 1 in 35.

The effectiveness of self-exams as an early cancer-detection method, however, has been questioned in recent years. The National Breast Cancer Coalition says medical studies suggest that the exams are not useful and can lead to "elevated anxiety, more frequent physician visits and unnecessary biopsies of benign lumps."

The American Cancer Society says self-exams play only "a small role" in finding breast cancer. On its Web site, the society says "it's okay not to do [a self examination] or not to do it on a fixed schedule."

Lord said he did not expect many viewer complaints, in part because the reports will be preceded by "viewer discretion" disclaimers. Further, he said, WJLA's 5 p.m. newscast follows "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and its 11 p.m. newscast on Thursday follows the ABC medical drama "Private Practice," both of which have audiences largely made up of women. On Friday, the 11 p.m. news follows "20/20," a news program that has an older following.

"This is very important information for our viewers," Lord said. "The public benefits of this will outweigh any criticism. I suppose some people will call up and say, 'I won't watch your station.' But they'll be outnumbered by those who say, 'You helped my sister. You helped my mother. You helped someone I love.' "

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