How To Bias A News Story, Part Two

My last post was a fictional Q & A explaining how to bias a news story.  It was sarcasm, of course; I don’t actually believe reporters sit down and plan out how to slant the news.  The slant is the natural result of their world view, a view that is reinforced by virtue of working in an intellectual echo chamber.

As John Stossel explained in one of his books, when he was just another ABC reporter whose stories fit the cookie-cutter template — regulations are always good because the government must save us from evil industries — he got along fine with his peers.  He won 19 Emmy awards. Then he had a libertarian awakening and began to file stories questioning the wisdom and necessity of many regulations, sometimes even highlighting the negative unintended consequences … at which point he found himself becoming an outcast who had to fight to get his stories on the air.  Many never were aired.  And as he explained a few years back, “Once I started applying the same skepticism to government, I stopped winning awards.”

If it seems I’m a bit obsessed with biased, pro-regulation reporting on health issues, it’s only because I’m a bit obsessed with biased, pro-regulation reporting on health issues.  The failure to question pronouncements by the FDA, USDA and NIH as rigorously as, say, pronouncements by the Pentagon or CIA is journalistic malpractice.  The consequences are real.  After the McGovern Committee’s recommendations were released, echo-chamber reporting about the virtues of the Food Pyramid and the evils of saturated fat gave us the low-fat, high-carb diet craze.  You know how well that turned out. 

And as Gary Taubes recounted in Good Calories, Bad Calories, there were plenty of doctors and scientists around who vehemently opposed the low-fat diet advice.  But their opinions rarely made the news.  The template had already been etched.

Even when government regulations aren’t actually harmful, they run the risk of misdirecting our efforts.  If calorie-count menus aren’t the cure for obesity — which seems likely, considering that Americans 50 years ago were leaner on average despite a near-total lack of nutrition labels — then requiring those menus (which is actually part of the health-care “reform” bill) is a waste of time and money.  If not a step backwards, it’s at best a step sideways.  It doesn’t bring us any closer to putting our foot on the real cause.

Likewise, if the FDA orders the food industry to incur the expense of reformulating their recipes to reduce sodium and it turns out that the real cause of hypertension is elevated blood glucose or a lack of potassium or both, then all we’ve done is taken another step sideways … and eaten a lot of tasteless food while doing it.  Or we might end up with more high-fructose corn syrup or other additives in packaged foods to replace the palatability that salt currently provides.

Worse, as Dr. Michael Aldeman pointed out, we will be conducting yet another uncontrolled experiment on the public.  We may realize 20 years from now that restricting sodium caused more harm than good, as happened when we switched from natural animal fats to chemically-extracted seed oils in the food supply.

So I don’t really care if the health reporters I’ve criticized are hard-working and sincere.  They’re not doing their jobs.  They’re not asking the right questions.  They’re offering up government recommendations as evidence, instead of examining the evidence themselves.

McGovern was hard-working and sincere too.  But he was also biased.  His doctor assured him that low-fat, high-carb diets were indeed the way to go, and McGovern trusted his doctor … so his committee basically ignored the testimony of prominent researchers like Robert Levy, Pete Ahrens and John McMichael, who all testified that it was irresponsible to recommend drastic dietary changes without waiting for conclusive research.  If you’ve seen Fat Head, you know how McGovern replied to such criticisms:  “Senators don’t have the luxury that a research scientist does of waiting until every last shred of evidence is in.”

In other words, he’d already selected his neat, dramatic narrative:  the meat, egg and diary industries are killing us with their fatty, cholesterol-laden foods.  He tossed out any information that didn’t fit the narrative.  If he hadn’t gone into politics, he would’ve made a first-rate health reporter.

So with that long and winding preamble out of the way, here’s my version of the Los Angeles Times story about the FDA’s efforts to reduce the salt content of food.  My version is equally biased, but also equally factual.  The only fictional aspects are the quotes; I’m not going to track down researchers to get quotes for a bogus news story, so I’m paraphrasing their written statements.  The point here is to demonstrate that two articles, while both factual, can leave the reader with completely different impressions.

FDA Calls For Salt Cutbacks

By Tom Naughton
Fat Head News Network

The Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday announced a gradual but potentially expensive effort to reduce the amount of salt Americans consume in a bid to combat high blood pressure, heart disease and strokes. The FDA’s efforts began by calling for food-industry cutbacks, which the agency labeled as “voluntary” while simultaneously threatening to impose new regulations if the industry doesn’t comply.

The FDA’s decision was applauded by government officials and liberal activist groups, but criticized by scientists, who have long pointed to a lack of convincing evidence linking sodium intake to medical problems.

Sodium intake is “simply too high to be safe,” said Dr. Jane E. Henney, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration and chairwoman of a government committee that produced the report calling for sodium restrictions. “Clearly, salt is essential…. We need it. But the level we’re taking in right now is far beyond the maximal levels we need.”

The “maximal level” recommended by the federal government is roughly one teaspoon of salt per day, which the average American exceeds by nearly 50%.  However, scientists question that recommendation.

“The theory that excess salt leads to heart and strokes has no long-term studies to back it up,” said Dr. Barry Groves, a science writer with a PhD in nutrition science.  “There have been 58 major studies on the matter.  They simply don’t support the current recommendation to reduce salt intake.”

Dr. Paul Rosch, a professor at the New York Medical College, agrees.  “In one of the largest studies ever to examine the link between dietary sodium and hypertension, the group with the lowest salt intake actually suffered from above-average rates of hypertension.  Meanwhile, in the group with the highest salt intake, high blood pressure was relatively rare.”

Other studies also suggest the level of sodium reduction demanded by the FDA would produce few public health benefits.  A recent article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, for example, noted that even extreme reductions in sodium intake have failed to prevent hypertension and heart disease in clinical trials.

Michael Jacobson, director of The Center for Science in the Public Interest, praised the FDA’s action and called for an immediate clampdown on the food industry.  CSPI, a vegetarian activist group that has warned consumers about the dangers of foods ranging from cantaloupes to wine, sued the FDA in 2005 in an attempt to force the agency to re-classify salt as an additive.  The reclassification would make salt subject to federal regulation, which CSPI has demanded for years.

The head of the salt lobby blasted the FDA’s efforts as unwarranted and overly broad.  “It’s not scientifically sound,” said Lori Roman, president of the Salt Institute. “They’re talking about some very drastic reductions. They could be harming people.”

Dr. Michael Aldeman, a researcher who has conducted numerous studies on hypertension, is likewise concerned.  “This would amount to a large, uncontrolled experiment with the public as subjects,” he said.  “I’m concerned about the unintended consequences.”


The most common defense against the charge of biased reporting is something like “How can it be biased if all we do is report the facts?”  Well, all I did is report the facts.  But my selection of facts tells a completely different story.  That’s why bias matters.  Reporters are taught to be skeptical of their sources.  Readers should also be skeptical of the reporters.


11 thoughts on “How To Bias A News Story, Part Two

  1. anand srivastava

    I think reducing salt level is not as slow acting as the reduction of saturated fat.
    It provides electrolytes, which are required all the time.
    Reducing salt will have a bad effect very soon. I am sure it will get taken down as soon as there are a number of deaths due to lack of electrolytes.
    Eating a lot of grains without added salt is dangerous. And they are recommending the two opposite things.

    Even if there aren’t any bad effects, I doubt we’ll see any health benefits from this latest nanny-state action.

  2. M

    Tom — Just wanted to make sure that you’re aware of Gary Schwitzer’s Health News Review web site and blog. He is devoting a career to staying on top of and calling out health care journalism.

    No, I wasn’t aware of the site. Great stuff there — thanks for the link.

  3. Ned Kock

    Very good points Tom. The salt scare has been bothering people for quite a while, even though serious empirical research has often contradicted the idea that sodium is a problem by itself. This one by Ikeda et al. (1986), for example:

    One of the problems seems to be that a diet rich in refined carbs and sugars creates a common pattern of metabolic disturbances that bias research results, sometimes dramatically. Sodium is a good example. Excess sodium in a diet rich in refined carbs and sugars seems to be much more of a problem than in diet without those engineered foods.

    Another example is dietary fat. Bad within a diet rich in refined carbs and sugars. Good without.

    Many well-intentioned researchers and regulators seem to miss this point.

    Excellent point. I guess since a grain-based, high-carb diet seems normal to us in modern times, it doesn’t occur to most researchers to think of that as a possible variable.

  4. Steve Parker, M.D.

    I’ve been impressed lately with how many national news stories – medical, nutritional, or otherwise – are just re-writes of the same PR news release all the reporters got.

    Thank God for the web, where differing opinions have a chance to air.


    That’s how a lot of articles strike me too. Press release, a phone or call or two … next! Deadline pressure, maybe.

  5. Ramona Denton

    Is Fat Head available electronically as a download, or can I only get it on DVD?

    Right now it’s DVD. We’re working on iTunes and whatnot, but it’s slow going.

  6. exogenesis

    Hey Tom, I have been an enthusiastic supporter of your efforts for some time having found my way independently some 8 years ago to the same saner approach to nutrition that you espouse. Thanks for presenting so clearly the role of government in distorting several generations relationship with their food supply and thereby adding so much to the current health crisis by the huge increase in chronic disorders that are impossible for us as a nation to afford to treat.
    Something is starting the eat at me as I continue to follow your blog. Maybe it is best framed in the question: “what is the proper role of governement in our lives? If “of the people, by the people and for the people” means anything at all then what is wrong with striving toward a government that supports rational assessment of “good science” and advice for the public good that is actually of benefit to the public without caving to financial interests that may be affected? This all requires an informed electorate that has the benefit of a public education where critical thinking is effectively taught. This is where you come in since much of what I see you applying to these issues is critical thinking. So, what do you say? Is the balance between public and private interests so skewed toward the private interests that the real public interest gets lost in our government? Or is it that those involved in our government are just too stupid to know what is good for us? Here is the fall back position – The US voting age population deserves the government they have because they are so easily fooled. Ending with the not so famous Lincoln Abraham quote ” You only have to fool enough of the people, enough of the time”

    The same people who wrote “of the people, by the people, and for the people” also wrote the Constitution, which as you’ve no doubt gathered, I take rather seriously. There’s nothing in that document that would empower the federal government to dictate how much salt can be in the food I buy. It’s not really about public interests versus private interests; it’s about freedom. If Swanson wants to sell me a salty microwave dinner and I want to buy it, that’s really none of Uncle Sam’s business, even if good science says too much salt is bad.

    Then there’s the problem of political influence. Plenty of government research has been conducted over the years and then buried because powerful politicians didn’t like the conclusions. And since government is the 900-pound gorilla of funding for research, once the government officials who control the funding have formed an opinion, the researchers often conform, as happened with the Lipid Hypothesis. People who disputed it and wanted to look for other causes of heart disease — and were correct to do so — found themselves out of work. That’s what happened to Dr. Kilmer McCulley. When he said cholesterol isn’t the cause of heart disease, Harvard dumped him for fear of losing their NIH funding. He lost his grants, and we all lost the benefit of his research.

    The other problem I have with government being in charge of assessing what’s good science or bad science is more practical. No small group of experts, no matter how honest or intelligent or educated, has all the answers. As Milton Friedman pointed out, the most educated person in the country doesn’t have as much accumulated knowledge as any 100 people picked at random. The real answers usually bubble up from the bottom, from people outside the chosen few. (There was an excellent book on that topic titled The Wisdom of Crowds.)

    So when government is in charge of telling us what’s scientifically correct, we’re accepting the wisdom of the few instead of the many.

  7. Jesrad

    “So when government is in charge of telling us what’s scientifically correct, we’re accepting the wisdom of the few instead of the many.”

    If only ! But it’s not just the wisdom of the few, it’s really the wisdom of the few more politically implicated. And usually, the people who get into politics are those who can’t get into proper honest business and/or tend to over-value themselves, so we actually get the “wisdom” of the few bigger a**holes who wouldn’t get their opinion heard otherwise.

    And far too many of our representatives and senators here are lawyers, so naturally they believe the cure for every problem is another law. When you’re holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

  8. Xogenisis

    “So when government is in charge of telling us what’s scientifically correct, we’re accepting the wisdom of the few instead of the many.”

    “The same people who wrote “of the people, by the people, and for the people” also wrote the Constitution, which as you’ve no doubt gathered, I take rather seriously.”

    Our job is to vote in (out) the government of our choice. Can’t do it? Then whoever controls government can dictate, recommend as you do Tom or support a wise range of view points depending on the choices we voters make. Seems like it is just enough to say government is bad and should have no role. Is this the typical American trait to blame gov and ignore the other large forces in society that are equally influential? Government is the only big around us that is required by our constitution to have a concern for the public good. If you can’t get an informed electorate to use voter vigilance to keep our government actually getting a lot closer to promoting the public good and providing regulation to control the too big to fail types then you do have to accept that the government we have is exactly what the American voter deserves. Remember the “wisdom” of the few bigger a**holes who wouldn’t get their opinion heard otherwise” also control our nuclear arsenal. How come so many seem to feel good about our government when it comes to our military. You are so damn lucky compared to where I live in the world.

    However, the Constitution was supposed to limit government, specifically to protect the rights of individuals against the majority’s will — majorities don’t need protecting from their own will. So I don’t buy the idea that if the majority of voters want a big, intrusive government, then it’s okay until that government is voted out. We may get the government we deserve as a society, but that’s exactly the problem: even if the majority of voters “deserve” a big, stupid, money-wasting government by voting for it, they never should have been able to impose it on the rest of us in the first place.

    In most cases, I don’t want the government trying to promote the public good, because 1) they don’t usually know what’s good for the public, and 2) their defintion of “public good” has a tendency to equal what’s good for the politicians in control.

  9. Bruce

    I think one of the problems that this type of government mandates is, people then assume that the food they are eating is healthy. (or their investment will be safe, or…) After all, the government will make sure that all is correct before they pass down a law, or threaten to put the non conformers out of business.

    Now, get me some margarine for my toast.

    Good point.

  10. Husker82

    When I attended college, I noticed the university student newspaper paper basically featured 5 types of stories:

    1. Gay/Lesbian/Transgender issues
    2. The problems of capitalism
    3. Environmental scares
    4. the widespread institutional rascism all over campus
    5. Hippy health nut ideas (granola, tofu, vegetarianism, sustainability, Paul erlich)

    This didn’t seem like a very diverse range of opinions/issues. I think I realized why during the national elections in 1984. The paper published the election polls BY COLLGE. Engineering school (where I was at) was 75% for Reagan over Mondale (25%), Business College, 55%/45%, medical school 55%/45%, liberal arts, 35%/65%, and the School of Journalism was 4%/96%. That’s right, 96% of journalism students were liberal. The same results were seen in the 1988 elections.

    With a herd mentality like this, is it surprising they all report the same stories with the same slant? THey honestly think they are mainstream and can’t see any slant whatsoever to their stories.

    That was my experience in journalism school as well. The field attracts people who, if journalism weren’t an option, would be going into something like social work. The most common answer given to the question “why do you want to work in journalism?” is “to improve the world.” Really? Doesn’t that suggest you have an agenda? How about reporting accurately on the world instead.


    Where do I find the eight studies with 8,000 patients that show that cholesterol doesn’t cause heart disease?
    My docter wants me to start takeing a statin again. I told her about the McGovern report
    that I wanted to try LCHF diet for one month, to prove to her that this diet can controle my wieght and cholesterol.

    The eight studies were on low-fat diets. Unfortunately, we can’t tell from the news clip which ones the doctors were citing, but several were done by that point. I mentioned them in my Big Fat Fiasco speech. All failed to reduce rates of heart disease.


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