Background: Sensationalized reporting styles and a distorted framing of health-care issues in newspapers may trigger inappropriate commissioning decisions. We evaluated UK press coverage of pre-licensing access to trastuzumab (Herceptin) for early breast cancer as a case study. Methods and findings: Content analysis of newspaper articles published between April 2005 and May 2006 were coded by two researchers for interest groups represented, claims made and sensationalized reporting. Disagreements in coding were resolved by a third researcher. One thousand and ninety published articles were identified in the study period and a 20% sample (n = 218) was included in the content analysis. Most articles (76%, 95% CI 71–82) included claims about the clinical benefits of trastuzumab, and this was significantly higher than those expressing the uncertainty surrounding such benefits (6%, 95% CI 3–9) or those that discussed the potential harms (5%, 95% CI 2–8). Articles were significantly more likely to feature claims made by a breast cancer survivor or family member than any other interest group (P < 0.0001). Almost half of the articles carried some message to the effect that trastuzumab would make the difference between life and death (47%, 95% CI 40–53). Over a quarter (28%, 95% CI 22–34) suggested that trastuzumab is a ‘miracle drug’ or similar. Conclusions: The benefits of drugs are highlighted, frequently using sensationalist language, without equal consideration of uncertainty or risks. Health-care purchasers should express decisions in opportunity cost terms; journalists should give fairer coverage to such arguments
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