Fat City: Is Fat Really Bad for You? Articles in Two Top Newspapers Reached Opposite Conclusions. No Surprise-Readers and Viewers Often Find Themselves Whipsawed by Reporting on Health Issues. How Can Journalists Keep Confusion to a Minimum?

Article excerpt

A succulent slab of steak, the kind that we all long ago learned would make us fat and give us heart attacks, graced the cover of the New York Times Magazine. An equally naughty, mouth-watering glob of butter swam atop the steak.

"What if Fat Doesn't Make You Fat?" asked the July 7 cover in bold, black lettering. Next to that provocative question, in smaller orange type, came these startling words: "Influential researchers are beginning to embrace the medical heresy that maybe Dr. Atkins was right."

In a contentious 7,909-word article, freelance science writer Gary Taubes asserted that conventional medical wisdom advocating low-fat, high-carbohydrate diets actually might have contributed to America's obesity epidemic. He advanced a largely untested hypothesis that high-fat, low-carbohydrate diets--the kind recommended by the disdained and unorthodox Robert Atkins--may well be healthier and more successful when it comes to shedding unwanted pounds.

On August 27, the Washington Post struck back. 'What If the Big Fat Story Is Wrong?" the Post asked. Health reporter Sally Squires examined the research that experts had accused Taubes of "ignoring or downplaying," reinterviewed many people Taubes had talked to and concluded that a heap of good science suggests Taubes was mistaken. Squires declared that a "significant amount of high-quality research" contradicts Taubes' central arguments, including his contention that low-fat diets are proven failures at weight loss.

"Probably both journalists selectively used information to make their point," says Walter Willett, chairman of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, who talked with both reporters for their stories. "Maybe if you put [the stories] together, they're adequately balanced. I think together they would still leave the public confused and without a balanced view of the limitations of information on both sides and also the fact that there is this huge middle area that emphasizes healthy forms of fat and healthy forms of carbohydrates."

The dueling fat stories and opposing messages from two of the nation's top newspapers illustrate the challenge of communicating controversial and important health information without hopelessly confusing readers. On many major health issues, contradictory studies are as common as the cold, and experts disagree over how to interpret the data. Reporters confront the difficult tasks of deciding which studies they should include, what study limitations to highlight and how much credence to give minority opinions in medical disputes.

Reporters covering disagreements over the benefits of mammograms must figure out how to handle conflicting information. Journalists who reported that scientists unexpectedly halted a major hormone replacement therapy trial for women had to convey persuasive conclusions from a large and well-executed study but also communicate the uncertainty that still surrounds the issue. Stories exposing emerging questions about low-fat diets must inform readers that the minority view, though intriguing, has not been rigorously studied, and the majority view, while accepted, is not completely supported by research.

The dangers of incomplete or misleading health stories are more personal for consumers than imperfect pieces about political debates or court decisions.

A June article in the Journal of the American Medical Association cites the news media's "powerful influence on public perceptions." The article, which questions whether coverage of preliminary studies presented at scientific meetings is "too much, too soon," concludes: "Press coverage at this early stage may leave the public with the false impression that the data are in fact mature, the methods valid, and the findings widely accepted. As a consequence, patients may experience undue hope or anxiety or may seek unproved, useless, or even dangerous tests and treatments. …