A Washington, D.C., television station's decision to air stories featuring partially-nude women doing breast self-exams stemmed in part from a breast cancer awareness effort, but critics say the reports' airing during a key ratings period suggests the station was exploiting women for gain.
The move has been met with criticism from people who believe it's inappropriate to show women's bodies during the 5 p.m. and 11 p.m. news.
"We don't think we're going too far," WJLA reporter Julie Parker told "Good Morning America" co-anchor Robin Roberts today. "We are proud of what we have done. There's nothing sexy about this. It's a breast self-exam."
"We decided that we were going to do this very tastefully, very clinically," explained WJLA reporter Gail Pennybacker. "Everything is instructional, and as you see from the reports, you see the details that you need to have to build those skills ... to do the exam."
News reports like WJLA's are exempt from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission's indecency rules, but some say the segments are exploitative.
"It could be done on a model or mannequin. It can be done through diagrams. … This is exploiting women in order to exploit the audience," said Wendy Wright of Concerned Women for America, a conservative group that promotes biblical values. "It's pretty clear that there's one point in doing this, and that is to try and increase their ratings."
Others say the series does the public a great service.
"While some may find this actual demonstration intrusive, others may view it as instructive and motivating," Susan Brown, the director of health education at the Susan G. Komen for the Cure, told "GMA" in a statement. "Providing these clear-cut instructions, along with more information about breast self-awareness, can also help a woman later during a more private time when she's better able to focus."
Whether on television or not, breast self-exams are a source of controversy within the medical community. Studies in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, and 2007 findings in the highly regarded Cochrane Collaboration, have found that breast self-exams may actually "harm" more than they help.
Compared with women who found their lumps by chance or through mammography, women who also performed breast self-exams were more likely to go through unneeded procedures, worry and tests for false positives, according to findings in the Cochrane Collaboration. Breast self-exams in the studies also showed no added benefit to women in terms of overall health and eventual cancer treatment.
Even the American Cancer Society, which once pushed breast self-exams, now calls them only an "option" and states that the breast self-exam "plays a small role in finding breast cancer compared with finding a breast lump by chance or simply being aware of what is normal for each woman."
On the other side of the debate are doctors who point out what they believe are the benefits of breast self-exams and the awareness the campaigns for the exams have raised.
And for women who have found a lump through self-exams, there is no debate.