Oct. 30, 2009 -- 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."
Report Panned, Praised
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."
Breast Self-Exams Cause Controversy
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.
"I know enough to save my own life, and that was very important to me," said Albright, who is one of the women included in the reports.
In the report that aired Thursday, the 28-year-old Albright is shown with her shirt open and arms raised. She uses the pads of her fingers to feel each breast carefully, going in a circular motion.
Pennybacker said t it wasn't difficult for the station to find participants for the reports.
"To find somebody was not a problem at all," she said, "because they understood to instruct someone on a breast self-exam, they need to see the breast."
Reporters Say 'Breast Cancer Touches Everyone'
The fact that the series started to air on the first day of the "sweeps" period -- when ratings are all-important -- is not lost on critics like Wright. But Bill Lord, the station's general manager, said there was a bigger purpose.
"The doctors we have talked to and the experts we have talked to say to really learn this correctly, you need to actually see them," Lord told "Good Morning America." "This is not something we have devised for our own purposes. It really is responding to professionals."
In an interview with The Washington Post Thursday, Lord said he wasn't bothered by the timing of the reports.
"Yes, this is an attention-getting story, but it's also an important story," he told the Post.
Pennybacker said that viewer reaction to the reports has been positive.
"We have had overwhelming support," she said. "From men, from women, people are very happy about how this was handled."
Roberts, whose own breast cancer was diagnosed through a self-exam, asked what inspired the two reporters to participate in the series.
"[Breast cancer] touches every single person," Parker said. "We hope that that's not the case moving forward."
ABC News' Medical Unit reporter Lauren Cox contributed to this report.
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