Awareness weak

Why manufactured public-health events don't make for good news

You know it’s October because of the pink. Breast Cancer Awareness Month has become inescapable, making the rare leap from a fake observance to a cultural moment. People are diagnosed with breast cancer every day of the year, but October is when we read their inspiring survival stories in women’s magazines. “Awareness months” are tailor-made for the sort of reporting we call “service journalism” but is mostly just lazy, lifestyle-section filler.

What else is competing for our awareness in October? Stamp collecting, LGBT history, autism, brain tumors, the clergy, Rett syndrome, national arts and humanities, domestic violence, cyber security, fair trade, dwarfism, squirrels, archaeology, auto battery safety, healthy lungs, dental hygiene, infertility, lupus, physical therapy, spina bifida, American pharmacists, 3D ultrasounds, and mental illness. If you’ve been looking for the right time to write a profile of that LGBT pharmacist’s battle to bring fair-trade infertility treatments to America, this is your month. Congratulations.

In case you don’t have that story lined up, here’s how to avoid publishing the worst kinds of “awareness month” pieces:

—Would this story pass muster without an “awareness month” hook? When The New York Times Magazine published a feature on the downsides of increased breast-cancer awareness, it chose to run the piece in April, several months before the annual pink-ribbon fever pitch, and the important piece of public health reporting stood on its own.

—Does this story acknowledge the archive of similar “awareness” reporting and further it in some way? The best stories are often meta-coverage. Lately some of the best breast cancer awareness pieces are those that report on the pervasiveness of co-branded products and discounts and advise readers on how to separate the proactive from the pinkwashed. Simply covering the fact that Danica Patrick is driving a pink car or KFC is donating a portion of its proceeds to research? Sorry, that’s not enough.

—Does this story check basic assumptions about the issue at hand? Whereas many reporters ask where all of those pink-ribbon proceeds are going, few think to check the public-health effects of encouraging more mammograms and early intervention, the goals of many breast cancer awareness campaigns. (Increased early intervention has barely decreased the incidence of late-stage breast cancer.) The Times piece from April stands out for questioning received wisdom. Reporters that don’t check the veracity of previous trend stories are doomed to repeat their errors.

To avoid breast cancer-coverage pitfalls, reporters can always turn to the culinary awareness months—maybe there’s an interesting service-journalism angle in combining several into one trend story. What if National Pizza Month, National Popcorn Poppin’ Month, and American Cheese Month (all, naturally, also celebrated in October) were all covered in one recipe-heavy feature? I’m salivating at the possibility.

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Ann Friedman is a magazine editor who loves the internet. She lives in Los Angeles Tags: #Realtalk