Is there a media bias or is Flat Earth News the new normal for the dietary supplements industry?

By Stephen Daniells

- Last updated on GMT

Is there a media bias or is Flat Earth News the new normal for the dietary supplements industry?

Related tags Mass media

Supplements are back in the headlines, with sensationalist and worrying headlines based on old research and a university press release. Is this the new normal for the dietary supplements industry?

Flat Earth News​ is an excellent book by Nick Davies that sheds light on how the modern mainstream newsroom works. The basic premise is that modern newsrooms are so lean, so stretched, and the 24-hour news cycle so ruthless that journalists don’t question the information they receive. Add to this the fact that many journalists are no longer specialists, they jump from one topic to another, and you get people practicing churnalism and not journalism. The result is that consumers of the media believe stories that are as incorrect as the idea that the Earth is flat.

Look at the mainstream media coverage of a forum at the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Annual Meeting 2015 and it screams Flat Earth News​: Tim Byers, MD, from the University of Colorado Cancer Center, described how his research has found that over-the-counter supplements may increase cancer risk if taken in excess of the recommended dietary amount. His university sent out a press release (Dietary supplements shown to increase cancer risk​) ​and the headlines and articles quickly followed.

It is not a good release. It’s lacking in facts and didn’t even mention that the data source for this was a 2012 review published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute​.​ The review focuses on antioxidants, folic acid, and vitamin D and calcium. A note has since been added to the original release stating the data source, along with the comment: “Many recent news reports stemming from this news release present incomplete data.”​ This made me smile a wry smile because many mainstream media outlets ran the original release pretty much word-for-word.

‘If taken at the correct dosage, multivitamins can be good for you’

While facts may be lacking in the release, what is not lacking is a collection of scary quotes:

“We found that the supplements were actually not beneficial for their health. In fact, some people actually got more cancer while on the vitamins,”​ explains Byers.

“At the end of the day we have discovered that taking extra vitamins and minerals do more harm than good,”​ says Byers.

But then there is this quote: “This is not to say that people need to be afraid of taking vitamins and minerals,”​ says Byers. “If taken at the correct dosage, multivitamins can be good for you. But there is no substitute for good, nutritional food.”

The excessive intakes is key in all of this and is totally lost in the reporting – drink too much water and you’ll be in trouble. The dose makes the poison.

Also missing from all of the mainstream media reports is any mention of the Physicians’ Health Study (PHS) II. PHS II is the only large-scale, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial investigating the long-term effects of a common multivitamin in the prevention of chronic disease. In other words, it’s a big deal. The PHS II found that daily supplements of multivitamins may reduce​ the risk of cancer by 8%​.

While it also found no effects on cardiovascular disease it certainly did not find any harm. What's more, additional data from the PHS II found that long-term use of vitamin C and E supplements do not increase the risk of cancer​, while vitamin C may offer some colorectal benefits. That particular study was published last year in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition​. Again, after Dr Byers' 2012 review. 

Supplements are an easy target right now

This press release should really have received no coverage at all, but it got plenty. Why? Supplements are an easy target right now – the combination of the NY AG probe, products containing anabolic steroids, and products spiked with amphetamine-like compounds are providing regular fodder for the time-squeezed journalist.

So is it Flat Earth News​ or something more sinister? Most people say that the New York Times’ coverage of the NY AG displays an agenda against the products. Other media outlets are just rerunning what they think is a trustworthy release because it comes from a university. It’s undoubtedly a mixture of the two.

There are some big questions that need answering:
Can the industry change the conversation in the media or is it too late? Is it time for a GOED-style campaign for multivitamins, to bypass the media and go straight to the consumer? I don’t know, but I do know that the coverage in the mainstream media is unlikely to change any time soon.
This is the new normal. The Earth is once again flat.

What do you think?

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If the Shoe Was on the Other (Pharma) Foot

Posted by Angela Ursery,

You're spot on re the pressures today's reporters face. I do find it curious, however, that pharmacy products, research, and supposed benefits are seldom trashed so glibly and quickly. Then again, those same journo pressures do benefit those with the most dazzling (and costly) media campaigns...

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My bio

Posted by Stephen Daniells, PhD, Senior Editor, NutraIngredients-USA,

Helen, I am the Senior Editor of the US edition of NutraIngredients, where this comment was originally published. I have been an employee of William Reed, which publishes these websites, for almost 10 years.
I obtained my PhD in chemistry from the Queen's University of Belfast, and then worked in research positions in The Netherlands and France before making the move into journalism in 2005. Thanks

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Is there a media bias- or is Flat Earth News the new normal for the dietary supplements industry?

Posted by Helen Bishop MacDonald,

For openers, you didn't mention anything about Stephen Daniells. Where does he work?; Is he a paid spokesman for the supplement industry? It sure sounds like he is. Otherwise the article is a good read.

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