Objectives: To test the hypothesis that television news coverage of different cancers reflects their incidence and burden, and to examine the journalistic approaches used in reporting cancer. Design and setting: Content analysis of all news, current affairs and infotainment reports on cancer broadcast on five free-to-air television channels in Sydney, New South Wales, 2 May 2005 - 6 January 2008. Main outcome measures: Number of items on specific cancers, relationship with burden of that cancer (disability-adjusted life-years [DALYs]), and category of "story lead" used for the item. Results: Cancer was the fifth most reported health issue, with 1319 items; 25 different cancers received news coverage. The most reported cancers were breast cancer (42.5% of all items on specific cancers), melanoma (11.9%) and cervical cancer (11.6%). Some cancers were significantly over-reported in relation to their DALYs (eg, cervical cancer was over-reported by a factor of 10.2 compared with the number of reports predicted on the basis of DALYs) while others were under-reported, including colorectal, lung and pancreatic cancers. The most common story leads used in cancer reports were treatment (32% of items) and celebrities with cancer (21%), particularly breast cancer. Conclusions: The current predominance of reports on breast and cervical cancer and on young women with cancer may be distorting public and political perceptions of the burden of cancer. The success of advocates in raising the news profile of breast cancer may hold lessons for agencies wishing to improve the newsworthiness of other cancers.