Has Nutrition Reporting Turned a Corner?

Editor David Feder, R.D., wonders if the tide is finally turning against slipshod reporting of nutrition science.

By David Feder, R.D., Editor

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I think we may have won a significant battle against bad nutrition science and for journalists being able to distinguish it from legitimate science. "We" would be those of us who studied nutrition science at a reputable university and have no agenda beyond communicating the latest in nutrition news, trends and developments in clear language, without hyperbole or bias.

When the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) issued their irresponsibly flawed February report (histrionically titled, "Salt: The Forgotten Killer"), it seems they weren't counting on the level of intelligence with which print journalists today are approaching nutrition stories. It's not like it was a few years ago, when a majority of reporters would accept - hook, line and sinker - any food-bating bait that was flung out.

It used to be that a headline in the vein of "Pasta Causes Obesity" or "Vitamin E Causes Cancer" would regularly appear in 72-point type in every newspaper, followed by weeks of updated coverage filled with dire warnings. But journalists apparently are approaching nutrition and health stories with the caution of those once burned and so now twice shy.

On one hand, perhaps the immediate collapse of the house of cards supporting the anti-salt campaign was a timing thing. In the wake of the fading low-carb fad, nutrition stories may simply be deemed not as interesting as they once were. Even reporters can tire of reporting a "landmark new finding" only to have to report its opposite a few weeks later. It also could be that, with the pressure on for greater integrity in reporting, journalists are doing a better job of investigating their sources. (A little overlap from politics, perhaps?) And perhaps it's both, plus a healthy dose of empiric knowledge gleaned over the years on a beat where we are simply more science-savvy as a culture.

CSPI probably expected their salt attack to be countered by industry. I'd love to know if they were surprised at how little the food processing community spokespeople needed to do to see the back of the salt scare. I wonder if CSPI expected the backlash from scientists who quickly called them to task over their misleading and biased report? And the media coverage of their report was nowhere near as extensive or long-term as to products of CSPI's earlier days.

Don't get me wrong. There are hoodwinkers out there taking advantage of the fact that journalists usually have degrees in journalism, not biochemistry. And they still can find the odd fourth estate columnist to use as an unwitting fifth columnist. But the bad scientists have burned too many journalists. Reporters don't like being made fools of and having to take the hit when a story backfires.

Whether to recover face or divert attention from the belly-flop sodium censure salvo, CSPI has just followed its salt report debacle with an equally precarious slam against tropical oils. (Check out "Nutrition Beyond the Trends: Don't Fear Tropical Oils" for more on the subject.) This time, the report registered barely a blip on the health reporting radar screen. As the fable tells, you can only cry "wolf" so many times before nobody comes running.

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