Research ‘spin’ has policymakers going round in circles

By David Burrows

- Last updated on GMT

“Some journalists are just lazy, but [some scientists] play on their ignorance. Sometimes [they are] guilty of sexing things up.” Image: iStock
“Some journalists are just lazy, but [some scientists] play on their ignorance. Sometimes [they are] guilty of sexing things up.” Image: iStock
Scientists and the media have long been uneasy bedfellows, but when it comes to research on nutrition they have become unlikely sweethearts.

For years researchers have accused journalists of misrepresenting their findings to the masses, but now they are quite happy to fuel this bad science if it attracts headlines. In fact, results are being spun in order to generate coverage and by turn justify future funding.

“I almost despair with regard to nutrition,”​ said professor Tom Sanders, emeritus professor of nutrition dietetics at Kings College London, in an interview with FoodNavigator.

“Some journalists are just lazy, but [some scientists] play on their ignorance. Sometimes [they are] guilty of sexing things up.”

The problem is impact. “There seems to be a scrabble to up the impact factors of journals and this encourages editors to accept papers that make strident claims and to reject well designed studies that are adequately powered and have null outcomes,”​ he added.

“Common sense doesn’t sell newspapers”

An example is research on organic food published in the British Journal of Nutrition​, in which the research team at Newcastle University provided “overwhelming”​ evidence that organic food is “high in antioxidants and lower in toxic metals and pesticides”.

The press release​ received widespread coverage, not least because it contradicted the advice of the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) on whether organic foods are healthier, or not.

But other nutrition experts, including Sanders, launched an offensive, suggesting that the findings had been “worryingly overstated”​ and demonstrated “a poor knowledge of the current understanding within the nutrition community of how fruit and vegetables may maintain and improve health”.

Whether it was a case of poor understanding of nutrition, or an extremely good understanding of the media, is a moot point.

“Common sense doesn’t sell newspapers,”​ noted Tim Clarke, group marketing and innovation director at Innocent Drinks, during a panel session at Food Matters Live recently. “[Stories about] eating healthily and exercising regularly doesn’t sell papers.”

Policy dilemmas

The problems are not confined to scientists either, with policy advisors also under pressure to win column inches in media outlets. With everyone chasing headlines progress on the big issues – like interventions to long-term obesity levels – slows as the space becomes confused and the evidence contradictory. This is where the likes of government advisors like Public Health England (PHE) step in, sort the wheat from the chaff, and provide advice.

contract, policy, business, agreement, signed
Image: Istock

But Sanders wonders whether the UK’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) and PHE would have recommended such draconian measures to curb sugar consumption, for example, had they not been the subject of attacks in the media. “There are judgement calls about policy in [relation to] food and nutrition,” ​he explained. “It’s not just about health.”

Politicians are under pressure to act, but they are also piling the pressure on research institutions to justify public expenditure in areas such as social change and food industry innovation. It seems to be having the opposite effect, however, with consumers left confused by conflicting media reports.

As the author and blogger Ella Woodward explained during Food Matters Live, headlines that chocolate is good for you are extremely misleading. “Dairy Milk is not really good for you,”​ she said.

This example could of course be the traditional issue of the mainstream media’s (generally) poor comprehension of research findings. In 2011, Sanders co-authored a paper​ in the journal, Public Understanding of Science​. Of the 11 dietary health claims identified, at least 68% had “levels of evidence lower than the convincing or probable categories that are recommended for dietary health claims.”

The team concluded that: “Misreporting of dietary advice by UK newspapers is widespread and may contribute to public misconceptions about food and health”.

This appears to be the case in relation to recent advice published by the World Health Organisation on processed meats: Sales of sausages and bacon have dipped​ since the meats were classified as carcinogenic.

Sometimes mass media can influence regulation in a positive way, as the results of a study on mislabelling of fish, due to be published later this week, are expected to prove.

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