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.