But just how widespread is fallacious newspaper reporting? An intriguing little investigation from University College Chester made an attempt to measure the terribleness (or not) of health and nutrition reporting in the British press. For one month, two intrepid investigators bought a British tabloid every day of the week.
Focusing on articles covering food and nutrition, they compared what the newspaper wrote and the research it was (purportedly) based on. Here’s what they found…
Dietary advice from the tabloids
Picking newspapers with the largest UK readership – The Sun, The Daily Mail, Daily Star, Daily Express and The Mirror (
rest in peace) – 39 articles covered diet or nutrition, with the beloved Daily Mail scooping the most.
A dietician assessed the writing. They found that ten of the articles describing ‘breakthroughs’ completely failed to mention what or when the research was done. Of the remaining 29, nearly all of them (26) didn’t get the facts right, or greatly embellished them – rendering them untrustworthy. Here’s one example:
Headline: “Nuts, better for you than fruit?”
Actual research title: “Polyphenolic content and sensory properties of normal and high oleic acid peanuts”
(incidentally, the actual research examines the amount of antioxidants in different types of peanuts, finding little difference – and making no comparison to fruits)
22 (of these twenty six) reported preliminary research rather than actual published research, and in only two stories did an independent dietician or nutritionist add comment.
“Oh God, what can I eat then?” – the effects
Phase two of this study: these tabloid-reading researchers sought to find out what impact such articles had on the readers; how it made them feel and whether it changed their attitudes toward food & diet.
Two focus groups from the general public were given the newspaper articles to read. Volunteers from the Women’s Institute were recruited as they were felt to represent tabloid readers (women and over 65). Their consensus was that the articles were confusing and misleading. The articles left them concerned and uncertain about what to eat (the quote above is from a focus group participant).
Although most of these female readers didn’t seem to think the articles were necessarily wrong, the lack of relevant content meant that they didn’t think they would change their habits (so there is a silver lining).
Time to bin the tabloid?
The power of the mass media to educate and inform cannot be overstated. Like it or not, tabloids aren’t going anywhere, but they are certainly missing a trick. As the university of Chester researchers point out, today’s tabloid reporting represents a “missed opportunity to reach the wider public with key nutritional and health messages”.
And now the challenge – to inform and educate, whilst still selling newspapers. Mission impossible?
UPDATE: As kindly pointed out below, the Mirror is not dead: it must have blurred in my mind with News of the World, for some odd(!) reason. Perhaps this blog post should be titled ‘…reasons not to trust everything you read in a blog’
Thanks for reading – feel free to comment below…
Basu, A., & Hogard, E. (2008). Fit for public consumption? An exploratory study of the reporting of nutrition research in UK tabloids with regard to its accuracy, and a preliminary investigation of public attitudes towards it Public Health Nutrition, 11 (11) DOI: 10.1017/S1368980007001565