Conflicts of Interest and Hyperbole: Nutrition in the Media

Article excerpt

Food and nutrition issues are popular news topics and have been occurring in the media with increasing frequency, yet few journalists are trained specifically in health reporting. Training in health science may be an approach to pique students' interest and maintain enrollments. Currently, health reporters say that lack of training is the biggest obstacle they face professionally; as a result, health news is often superficial, exaggerated, and not balanced. Providing training in health sciences to undergraduate journalism and mass communication students will give future health reporters the solid foundation they need to communicate health news effectively to the public.

Introduction

Commercial mass media and food industries exist for a common reason: to make money.1 To do so, both industries must attract consumers using similar tools, including information, public relations, and entertainment. When these industries overlap-when news stories focus on food and nutrition-the messages are particularly compelling because their topics have such an innately personal nature.2

In an era of fad diets and simplistic solutions, the media have an unprecedented ability to influence a vast audience with food and nutrition information.3 As evidence, 58% of U.S. adults report that health news stories have motivated them to consider changing their behavior or to take a specific action (e.g., changing their eating habits).4 The media inform the public about nutrition and other health issues much more ably than do registered dietitians, physicians, or nurses.5 In fact, most health professionals themselves first learn about developments in food and nutrition through the media rather than through professional journals or traditional continuing education.6

Because food and nutrition topics appeal to consumers, journalists have responded with increased coverage in print, broadcasting, and the Internet. Between 1999 and 2001, the number of nutrition-related articles increased by 20% at Reuters and by 36% at the Associated Press.7 According to the American Dietetic Association (ADA), 72% of Americans report that they get their food and nutrition information from television (up from 48% in ADA'S 2000 survey), while 58% of consumers, particularly women, cite magazines as a chief source of food and nutrition information.8

The media particularly influence adolescents' health behaviors. Today, the average adolescent spends more time with media than he or she devotes to any other type of activity (including-for some-sleep).9 In addition, adolescents are particularly receptive to the messages conveyed through media as they wrestle with their self-identity.10 Although the relationships between media impressions and behavior during adolescence are not fully understood,11 a growing body of evidence indicates an association between media and low-quality eating patterns,12 alcohol consumption,13 lack of physical activity,14 and eating disorders.15

Despite their impact on consumers' health knowledge and behavior, health reporters traditionally are not trained in the topics they cover. Voss surveyed 165 health reporters at 122 newspapers in Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Wisconsin; she found that only one-third felt confident in reporting health news, and fewer than 10% could confidently interpret health statistics.16 About half of the survey participants indicated that the media did not provide context for health stories (e.g., how much to eat and how often) and had a difficult time producing balanced stories on deadlines.17 Survey participants indicated they were interested in covering health topics, but overall, they gave themselves-the media-low scores for health news coverage.

Cross disciplinary approaches-combining journalism education with health education-can provide students with the tools they need to become effective health reporters, and a combined undergraduate major may be especially appealing to students as the rate of growth in undergraduate journalism education continues to slow down. …