Junkfood Science: Reporting or marketing? It really is possible to tell the difference...

January 16, 2008

Reporting or marketing? It really is possible to tell the difference...

All too often, journalism today is little more than marketing copy. How many reporters cite original source materials, investigate the evidence behind the claims, reveal the conflicts of interest of the experts they quote, or present a balanced viewpoint? Practically none, especially when it comes to obesity. Writing that elicits an emotional response on this issue, rather than objectively reports the facts, has become so widespread that many readers and editors have become numb to the manipulations.

Can you identify how many things were not revealed in this story and how words and images were used to steer your emotions?

The skinny on fat — 'There's no cure for obesity,' says top Canadian expert

The fattest of the fat have three options when it comes to their waistlines: have bariatric surgery, become a lifelong calorie counter and fitness freak, or do nothing — in which case complications from obesity could eventually kill them.

In a nutshell that's what Canada's top obesity expert — now based in Edmonton — told local health practitioners yesterday while discussing the obesity epidemic. A blunt man, Dr. Arya Sharma's message was made clear in the first slide in his hour-long presentation. The image was of a tiny mortician standing beside a massive coffin, the oversized kind funeral parlours are selling more often these days.

“There is no cure for obesity. Once you get it you're obese for life. It's a chronic disease ... said Sharma, chair of obesity research with the University of Alberta and the scientific director of the Canadian Obesity Network.

Let’s push the pause button. Obesity is depicted as a death sentence with no cure, so much so that a coffin is used to invoke fears. Bariatric surgery is presented as the only real choice. Besides the vast amounts of science refuting these exaggerated scares, there is also no mention of the interests of the expert quoted or of the Canadian Obesity Network (CON). JFS introduced Dr. Sharma and CON last summer here.

If readers haven’t yet picked up that this article is a promotional piece for bariatric surgery, they’re sure to as it goes on to make sensationalized claims about bariatric surgery, reinforce popular beliefs of the causes for obesity, and propose governmental interventions.

The proven futility and unhealthfulness of dieting and calorie restriction — “successful weight losers can only keep the weight off by eating less than half of the recommended daily caloric intake, forever” — is used to promote surgically-induced caloric restriction:

“The results of bariatric surgery today are spectacular. It's a 60-minute outpatient procedure that's been shown to reduce mortality rates by 30%, cure sleep apnea in 86% of patients and cure diabetes in 80% of patients." Sharma said it's the lifestyle change most obese people have difficulty with. “Whether they exercise ridiculous amounts or count calories for the rest of their life, only one in 20 people can keep the weight off for very long."...

“Our environment is pulling the trigger. We will ultimately need policy and government to intervene, as they have with smoking," he said.... “Long-term success rates for programs like [Weight Watchers] are between 2.5% and 3%...” [emphasis added]

While critical thinking has left newsrooms, hopefully the public is realizing the importance of thinking and researching the facts for themselves and not basing any medical decision or public policy on what they hear in the news. The rest of the story is often the most important.

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