The media diet
Why the wellness beat has become an unappetizing blend of sensational headlines, mixed messages and unhealthy reporting
Few shoppers here are in a hurry. It’s a hot, late-August afternoon, and Carrot Common is dappled with shade. Two young women sit outside with organic takeout boxes, their feet sporting charity-chic Toms shoes. To their left, a bulletin board advertises holistic nutritionists and alternative health therapies. To their right, a juice bar churns out murky green detox smoothies and blood-red beet juice. At the back of this eat-well oasis, nestled in the heart of Toronto’s Greektown, is the city’s iconic ultra-healthy grocery store, The Big Carrot. Inside is a new world of food: the carrots are purple, the tea is fermented, and the aisles are stocked with bags of hemp hearts.
On most days, the store buzzes like a swarm of contented bees alighting on their favourite organic agave nectar. The shoppers are diverse: some Lululemon-clad patrons head straight for the dulse granules. Other miracle-food seekers meander the aisles, pausing to identify things like edible bits of “sprouted ancient grains”: a box of kamut, wheat, adzuki, lentil and fenugreek squiggles.
After 10 years of working at the The Big Carrot, store nutritionist Cathy Hayashi is used to buyers’ uncertainty. From noon till 8 p.m., Monday through Thursday, she stands by the entrance, offering new customers guided tours or directions to the latest much-hyped superfood. The media plays a large part in such popularity cycles, Hayashi says. “If Dr. Oz says something,” she explains, “for weeks on end we’ll be hearing about whatever was highlighted by the show.”
Big Carrot shoppers aren’t the only ones lured into stores by the media’s never-ending stream of “breakthrough” reports on healthier eating. In 2008, almost two-thirds of Canadians said they consulted newspapers and magazines for health-related facts—making print media one of the four most-used sources for such information (along with doctors, other health professionals and family/friends), according to non-profit research group Canadian Council on Learning. Surely, some stories deserve that trust; many others do not. And, as ridiculous as certain super-cure stories can be, this on-trend reporting also has the potential to do great harm. “It’s absolutely wrong and irresponsible,” says Toronto dietitian and TV/print journalist Leslie Beck, “to make people think that if they eat blueberries every day, they’re going to reduce their risk of heart disease.”
The health and wellness beat, after all, deals with serious stuff—from diet and exercise regimens to illness treatment and when to see a doctor. All this, as Beck says, requires a particularly careful and balanced approach to providing the tips readers crave. Instead, in many ways health reporting has come to mimic tabloid entertainment: stories on nutrition, fitness and lifestyle are ubiquitous and hard to sift through, which makes it difficult to separate fact from fiction. The result is a cycle of (often inaccurate) “bad for you” and “next big thing” stories that risk discrediting the entire health beat. On top of that, in place of real health help, readers and viewers are left following a potentially harmful “Media Diet” based on miracle cures, fad diets, superfoods and food scares.
In February 2012, cardio-thoracic surgeon and television personality Dr. Oz introduced another superfood, just in time for Valentine’s Day. “I’ve got the number one miracle in a bottle to burn your fat. It’s raspberry ketone,” Dr. Oz began solemnly, fixing TV viewers with a soul-searching stare. He had finally found it: the miracle cure for women who will do anything—anything!—to lose weight. During the segment, guest expert Lisa Lynn (a specialist in metabolic disorders and personal training) provided this vague prescription: “Try 100 milligrams at breakfast,” she said, “and if that doesn’t work, go to 200, try it again at lunch.”
Last April, the Toronto Star ran the story under the headline “Weight loss ‘miracle’ supplement: Dr. Oz extols virtues of raspberry ketone.” The Globe and Mail followed with greater skepticism in June: “Is this supplement a weight-loss miracle?”
Beck hadn’t even heard of raspberry ketone until Dr. Oz pushed it into the headlines. Sitting in her glamorous North York office (a mixture of luxe boutique and spa, lined with books and health products), she throws up her manicured hands at the mere mention of ketones: “I just knocked that to shreds on CTV!”
The method behind the miracle fat cure seems sound. According to Dr. Oz, raspberry ketone regulates adiponectin (which “sounds like a big word,” he added), a protein used by the body to regulate metabolism. Lynn’s recommended daily dose of 100 mg of concentrated ketone (the equivalent amount in 90 pounds of fresh fruit) purported to break up the fat contained in the body’s cells, allowing it to be metabolized more efficiently. There is only one problem, as Beck mentions: “Raspberry ketone has never, ever been tested or studied in humans.”
One of the few raspberry ketone studies involved two groups of mice, which were fed the same high-fat diet. One group received a supplement of raspberry ketone, and these rodents gained slightly less weight than expected. The results are significantly less impressive than the word “miracle” implies. With the endorsement of media darling Dr. Oz, however, these results helped prove the basis for the next miracle cure.
Besides the limited scope of the study, there are other important caveats to consider, such as the amount of ketone the mice were forced to consume each day: a minimum of 0.5 per cent of their total body weight. By comparison, Lynn’s recommended dose of 100 mg would amount to a miniscule 0.0001 per cent of the total body weight of a 75-kilogram woman.
Ketones weren’t the only magic bullets fired in recent years. In June 2011, we heard “A yogurt a day may keep heart disease away” from The Globe and Mail; in August 2012, it was “Goji berries pack an antioxidant punch,” according to CBC News; and in April 2012,The Gazette featured quinoa: “‘The mother grain’ is really a tiny, nutrient-packed seed.” The list of such articles goes on and on. Of course, some of these headlining foods are likely very good for us—but the danger lies in telling the two apart when sensational stories and credible scientific studies are presented on the same platform: our magazines and newspapers. “I don’t know if this whole superfood thing will really ever go away. People want a food to keep them healthy forever,” says Beck. “That’s why that story sells.”
The Superfood club has its VIPs: margarine, chocolate, red wine, coffee and eggs—just to name a few foods under constant scrutiny. When journalists aren’t telling consumers why these foods will kill them, they are busy extolling their virtues. Much of this can be blamed on the bad habit of headline-plucking—emphasizing one small element of a study, without context, as the basis of a story or attention-grabbing headline. Take, for instance, an August 2012 Toronto Sun story about egg yolks, with this fear-inducing headline: “Egg yolks almost as unhealthy as cigarettes: Study.”
The social media backlash was enormous, with egg eaters’ ire directed at both scientists and journalists. “Please ‘NO MORE STUDIES,’” wrote one aggravated online reader, dubbed Slappybeaver. “I am tired of everything being bad for us, then it is good for us, then another study says it is bad. I don’t care anymore I will do whatever I feel like doing.”
The next day, The National Post ran a story tracking the ups and downs of egg coverage over the years: In November 2008, Harvard Medical School research, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, linked a daily egg habit to early deaths. In the same issue, former American Heart Association president Robert Eckel issued a response to the study, stating that eggs were a neutral (neither healthy nor unhealthy) food. In January 2009, University of Alberta scientists discovered that certain proteins in eggs are similar to medications for high blood pressure. Yet, in September 2011, egg-yolk consumption was linked to an increased risk of dying from prostate cancer. Then, in November 2011, the University of Cambridge released a study suggesting that egg whites were a better source of energy than jam.
The Toronto Sun story comparing eggs to cigarettes is based on a study by University of Western Ontario scientists J. David Spence and David Jenkins, titled “Egg Yolk Consumption and Carotid Plaque.” Judged by title alone, the study would be less than exciting to the general population. From a sell perspective, though, everything changes once egg-yolk consumption is compared to the dangers of smoking. As Medical Post clinical editor Terry Murray says, “It’s got a ready-made headline because of the cigarette connection.”
The researchers analyzed data from 1,262 older individuals. Information was divided into three categories: plaque buildup by age, plaque buildup in smokers by “pack-years of smoking” (defined as packs smoked per day multiplied by years smoked) and plaque buildup in egg-yolk eaters by “eggyolk years” (the number of yolks consumed per week multiplied by the number of years consumed). They found that plaque buildup increased linearly with age, but exponentially along egg-yolk years or pack-years. By isolating the correlation between egg-yolk years and plaque buildup, the researchers concluded that egg-yolk consumption was detrimental—meaning egg yolks do accelerate carotid plaque buildup over time, and people at risk of heart disease should avoid them—but also that the connection merited further research, not a nationwide exodus from the egg aisle. The article also stated that some key factors weren’t taken into consideration, such as exercise and waist-to-hip ratio. Despite the researchers’ acknowledgement of the study’s limitations, the media focused on the sensational sell. “[Publishers] want something provocative on page one,” says Murray. “We are not the most angelic, pure of heart, motivated by the desire, solely, to make people’s lives better. We also want to say, ‘Hey, look: I’ve got a good story here, and a million people read it.’”
But will people keep reading it? For all those who read the egg story—and the hundreds of other roller-coaster stories—arguably just as many ignored any useful information the study provided on the effects of eating eggs because they, like Slappybeaver, dismissed the news as another scare story. Like so many other health fad articles, the egg story made headlines for a few short days, then vanished forever.
Even the most routine health reporting is often like a game of broken telephone. The communication of research from scientist to journalist to reader is what reporter Julia Belluz refers to as “knowledge translation”—and there are many places where it can go wrong, even when journalists, editors and publishers aren’t trying to find the sell. Belluz is the writer of the blog Science-ish, a joint project of Maclean’s, The Medical Post, and the McMaster Health Forum. Science-ish functions as a bridge between health research and reporting. In doing so, it challenges the sensationalist headlines that so often make the paper, and holds journalists, policy makers and opinion leaders accountable for their roles in the public’s perception of health reporting. Since the blog launched in the summer of 2011, it has been examining where journalists go wrong. “[We’re] looking at studies that are reported in the media,” says Belluz, “how they are reported, how we end up with the crazy headlines we have, when we get things wrong.”
Part of the trouble comes from the way scientists and journalists communicate about each “breakthrough.” The ups and downs of studies, for instance, often simply reflect science’s pursuit of new discoveries (though they may alarm magazine readers with a newly toxic tub of margarine lurking in their fridges). The answers you might be getting in a study one day aren’t the final answers, says Belluz. The conclusions are really situated within a larger body of research. Unfortunately, many readers are looking for the quick fix—and they don’t want to be told exercise and sensible eating are the best way to get fit, or that there is no easy answer. As Beck says, the real question when it comes to giving sound advice is “How do you make that sexy?”
Belluz isn’t so sure it can be done. “They’re not things that you can buy, so we [media] overcomplicate,” she says. “We’ve overcomplicated all of this messaging about health to the point that people are just genuinely confused about what the best thing to do is.”
Megan Griffith-Greene, in charge of fact-checking at Chatelaine from 2007 to 2010, agrees. While at the magazine, she set out to restructure the way health stories were researched and reported in an effort to avoid the roller-coaster effect of superfoods that heal one minute and harm the next. She says that even in 50- to 150-word health briefs, factual infractions can add up and contribute to a culture where the public no longer trusts the media when it comes to health research.
“I found it very humbling at Chatelaine because you’re reaching millions of Canadians, and millions of Canadians will trust you and will change their lives because of what they read,” she adds. “The potential harm you can do with inappropriate information is very great at mass publications, at women’s publications.”
Like Belluz, Griffith-Greene blames much of the harm factor on a disconnect between journalists and academics. She says many journalists often rely on press releases about studies instead of reading the actual scientific research. For this reason, the guidelines Griffith-Greene set up required that writers read the full study and contact the lead researcher to check that the magazine brief captured the methodology and conclusion of the research. “There was an appreciation to take the time to ensure we got it right,” says Griffith-Greene. “Academics love to talk about their research. They love to have their research get picked up in print.”
Griffith-Greene cautions that a conversation between researcher and reporter isn’t the cure-all. Statistical illiteracy is rampant in all beat reporting, but especially in health stories, where journalists are presented with figure-heavy abstracts and expected to interpret the results. In other words, just because journalist and scientist are talking to each other, it doesn’t mean they understand each other. “I wish journalism schools would provide, or require, a course on the fundamental reading of statistics,” says Griffith-Greene. “We think that it’s simple math…but statistics can often be really misleading, especially when it comes to things like disease burden, incidence levels, treatment efficacy…”
Belluz puts it another way: “Lifestyle magazines are tough…the stuff that’s peddled to [readers] is total pseudoscience—it’s insanity.” But it doesn’t have to be.
The first organized push to get journalists and researchers talking to each other began with Frankenfood. Starting in 1999, sensationalism swept through the British media. The scare story of the year focused on what’s officially known as genetically modified (GM) food. These crops were designed to be more nutritious, more disease-resistant and better-tasting than their non-modified cousins. A great hope for these super-plants was that they would put an end to world hunger. Instead, GM foods were vilified by the British press and ultimately banned from being grown in the U.K. Scientists, politicians and public figures complained about the unbalanced coverage, insisting that the media was slowing the progress of a powerful disease-fighting tool in the name of a good scare.
Following the GM food coverage, along with similar horror stories about mad cow disease and a supposed correlation between autism and MMR vaccines (immunization against measles, mumps and rubella), the House of Lords decided to examine the state of science and society in Great Britain. One of the resulting recommendations was to set up a new initiative to support and encourage scientists to engage more effectively with science journalists, and vice versa. In 2002, this initiative culminated in the Science Media Centre (SMC).
“The SMC facilitated a much more proactive culture,” says Fiona Fox, SMC’s chief executive. For starters, the centre encouraged scientists to get involved, whether it was making themselves available for interviews or breaking down their research for journalists to ensure no facts were lost in translation. The idea is to prevent situations like the Frankenfoods fiasco from ever happening again. Fox believes that through the centre, the public can say yes—or no—to new science after an informed debate, and after receiving accurate scientific information from journalists and the SMC’s database of experts. “We will never know how that GM debate would have gone if the best plant scientists in the country…had taken up the opportunity of interviews.”
To get accurate information out to readers, the SMC functions as a middle ground between scientists and journalists. The centre sifts through journals and press releases and flags the stories the media will most likely be interested in—often the ones that arrive at either a cure for or cause of cancer, according to Fox. Researchers then examine the scientific paper and provide journalists with made-for-print feedback on the study, red-flagging issues that the writers may not notice, such as human conclusions being drawn from a study conducted on mice, inadequate sample sizes, or conflicts with the overwhelming evidence of previous studies. They deliver this analysis to the writers and their editors to help them make a more informed decision about the value and significance of the story. SMC researchers will also provide a quote that journalists can insert into the story, should they so choose.
Although Fox agrees that some stories obviously deserve front-page coverage, she says that the big message, really, is: “Science journalists, tell your editor: do not splash this on the front page. This is a lovely study, but it should be on page 15, and preferably copy and paste the quotes we sent you, which are very nicely written, very clear, very accessible, and put them in the article.” She adds, “And every single day that happens in the SMC.”
Health and science communities around the globe have taken notice of the SMC’s success. To date, there are similar centres in Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Japan, and plans for new centres in other countries, including the United States.
The Science Media Centre of Canada (SMCC) began to take shape in 2008, the result of the Canadian Foundation for Innovation’s desire to promote a “culture of innovation.” The centre opened its doors two years later, using the British SMC as a model.
SMCC executive director Penny Park, who helped create the Discovery Channel’s Daily Planet, was particularly enthusiastic about joining the centre. She recognized journalists’ desire to cover science stories — as well as their hesitation to delve into the complicated reporting this involved. While Park was at Daily Planet, this hesitation was a recurring theme at meetings she attended with other journalists from several programs owned by CTV. At these meetings, Park and her colleagues would discuss the lineup for the next top stories. Time and time again, stories about climate change, health and technology were brought up, but many were ultimately, reluctantly, dismissed. “I was going ‘Oh my gosh, there’s so much science!’” she says. “I could see that they wanted to do more science but didn’t have the resources. They wanted to cover [science] in more depth.”
Canadians trust scientists, but need to understand what the challenges are for journalists, says Park. Similarly, scientists and journalists needed to come together to forge a network of communication and understanding. She believes that the SMCC champions this cause. Through the centre, science journalists are able to read studies early under publication embargo and engage scientists about their research. Scientists, meanwhile, are exposed to the culture of journalism and situations they don’t encounter in the lab, like the boiling point of an editor or the unstable pressure of an imminent print deadline. The aim is to make scientists start thinking about their research in a way that gets them to communicate it effectively, says Park.
The SMCC takes a multi-faceted approach to providing resources for both journalists and academics. Like the original SMC, the Canadian centre releases studies under embargo to allow journalists time to speak with experts, provides highlights of the latest findings, and matches writers with researchers. While the SMCC is dedicated to helping all science journalists, it may also serve as a particularly useful tool for the underappreciated general assignment reporters who are often handed health stories.
Park and her colleagues plan on going into newsrooms to conduct boot camps on how these reporters should approach studies and identify the key risks, statistics and weaknesses of the research. They will also teach journalists to avoid sensationalizing one finding in a study. “[We] fine-tune their bullshit detectors, basically,” says Park.
Boot camps and courses for scientists are already taking place at universities. The media awareness skills taught at these sessions are intended to facilitate communication between scientists and journalists, minimizing the possibility of embarrassing mistakes in their stories. On the flip side, the SMCC plans to offer a formal Science 101 course to journalists to teach them basic scientific literacy.
The health beat is sick, but courses like these, watchdog blogs and the efforts of individual editors to improve the credibility of their health coverage will lead to more balanced reporting.
“We really do hope this attitude that says ‘we love a good scare story’ disappears,” says Fox. “We are [not] asking the media to write boringly. There’s enough. There’s enough ‘exciting’ happening in science for there to be hundreds of front pages on science stories—but just written accurately.”
Arielle Piat-Sauvé was the Spring 2015 Senior Editor of the RRJ