What does a biobank look like to the average newspaper reader? This is a question asked by Ogbogu et al. (2014), who analyzed articles published on the subject between 2006 and 2013.1 Acknowledging that how a subject is portrayed in the press influences popular opinion for better or worse, the authors examined seven years of newspaper reporting on biobanking for answers.
The researchers chose 2006 as their start date for searching, suggesting that this was when the term “biobanking” started to achieve everyday familiarity for a broader public. They argue that this happened through its increased usage in academic writing and subsequent reporting in the media. Using Factiva, a business and information research service that gives access to many different sources, including newspapers, magazines and journals, Ogbogu et al. identified major newspapers according to circulation numbers. They then searched for relevant keywords that pulled out content dealing with biobanking from these major broadsheet newspapers. Finally, they constructed scoring schemes to analyze the articles, relying on an external scorer to adjudicate and verify their methodology.
From an initial keyword search for “biobank,” the team developed secondary associated keyword search strings, including terms such as “medical,” “health,” “bank” and “tissue.” Using these in addition to Boolean search operatives, the team felt they covered all possibilities and reduced the potential for missing an article. From these searches, they amassed an initial collection of published articles from which they extracted their final set for analysis. Screening the initial collection to dismiss replicated content and duplicate articles, financial statements and advertising, the team arrived at a final set of 163 articles about biobanks. Most were published between 2006 and 2013, although the team did opt to include all relevant articles found under their initial keyword search for “biobank,” meaning that some included in the study were published prior to 2006 and therefore outside the study period defined earlier.
The final set of articles on biobanks comprised 85 published in the United Kingdom press (52.1%), 30 each from Canada and the United States (18.4%), and 18 found in Australian newspapers (11%). These articles were written by 123 different authors, and the peak publishing rates came in 2007 and 2012.
Of the 163 articles, 31.3% appeared in the news section, 7.4% in science and 4.9% in health. According to the authors’ analysis, 47.9% rated as news stories, 32.5% as investigative or analytical reports, 8.6% as editorial or opinion pieces, and 3.7% as letters.
On analyzing content more deeply, the team noted that most articles (75.5%) mentioned a specific biobank by name; for example, during 2007, a year in which high numbers of articles on biobanks were published, the UK Biobank was the most common biobank mentioned. This coincided with promotional activity and press interest in active donor recruitment at the start of this project. Apart from specific biobanks, articles covered blood, tissue, DNA, urine and stem cells most frequently as subject matter, with cancer being the most common disease reported on.
According to the scoring scheme developed to assess content type and tone, newspaper reporting on biobanking was overwhelmingly positive or neutral in emphasizing benefits to patients, medical research and scientific progress (84%), with fewer articles dwelling on negative matters such as risks or donor privacy issues, for instance (45.4%). The authors were surprised to discover that ethical, legal policy and regulatory matters appeared infrequently, with the latter two topics the subject of only 39.3% of articles. Although widely covered by studies in primary research papers, donor issues, such as consent and control of future use of samples for the implications therein, featured rarely in the newspaper reports identified for analysis. Likewise, there was little discussion on the potential for genetic discrimination in health insurance coverage; only 7.4% of articles covered this issue.
Interestingly, Ogbogu et al. noted that when articles offered quotes on the subject, reporters spoke mainly to researchers (47.2%), followed by biobank employees (39.9%) and then patients/donors (14.1%). The researchers surmise that the source of quotes may have influenced the overall tone of articles, suggesting that researchers are more likely to offer positive views on biobanking.
In summary, the research team suggests that although the role of the printed press in disseminating information that informs public opinion is declining, it is still an important influence. They suggest that researchers play a key role in positively promoting biobanking and that this may be one of the reasons behind its high perceived value within the community. While this is positive, the authors caution that this over-optimistic outlook could bias donor participation and raise expectations beyond what is achievable. This could be problematic, especially since they found very little informed commentary published on the risks associated with biobanking, despite its significant presence in policy and academic discussion.
1. Ogbogu, U. et al. (2014) “Newspaper coverage of biobanks,” PeerJ 2:e500, doi: 10.7717/peerj.500