Bites are good for eating—not so much for obtaining important nutrition and health information. “Sound bite” health and nutrition reporting abounds on the TV, radio, internet, even in magazines and newspapers. But of course snazzy headlines and clever blurbs don’t always equal accurate reporting. And MSG is no stranger to these sound bite reports, which sometimes fall under catchy but somewhat casuistic headlines.
In this, Part One of a series on evaluating nutrition and health reports, I offer a few reasons that we should be wary of altering our lifestyles based on information in sound bite science reports.
Believe it or not, research studies come with their own advertising of sorts, called press releases. Good science reporters use press releases as jumping-off points for their more in-depth reporting. For those reporters with no time or no expertise in science topics or science reporting, press releases function as ready-made science stories. Unfortunately, this practice results in science stories that frequently favor “sexy” messages for solid information. Details matter. They give us clues about things like the quality of the study and provide context for the results—both important things that help us decide if we care about the study at all, and whether the results warrant action on our part.
Context is essential for understanding the importance of the study’s results. I’d even go so far as to say that without appropriate context, it is hard to interpret any science story. In her chapter on improving media coverage of controversial science and public policy issues (in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences publication, Science and the Media,) author Cristine Russell gives ten tips for journalists, and the first one listed is “Put new research into context.” Knowing the type of study, the strengths of different types of research, how applicable the findings are to humans and other details can make all the difference. A tiny, poorly constructed animal study doesn’t compare in significance to a large, double-blind, placebo-controlled human clinical trial (aka the “gold standard” of research designs).
Let’s face it: it’s nearly impossible to provide adequate background to a science research story—as well as the details and context needed to make sense of it—in the mere minutes (or seconds) or few column inches that most news sources allot. And given this lack of time and space, along with the short attention span of the viewer or reader, there is certainly going to be an emphasis placed on the results.
Giving the public the “quick and dirty” story and presenting the “bottom line” is what it’s all about these days. Even blogs such as this cannot cover a complex scientific study in the detail that we’d like. The media likes to conclude a story with a “here’s what you should do about this” message. Do all reports need to be wrapped up this way? Of course not, and the pressure to give some practical advice based on every new study that comes across the newswire results in equalizing the importance of all study reports. Not all studies are equally valuable (hence the importance of context) and one certainly needn’t modify one’s diet or health practices in response to every new report.
So next time you hear a science report on the nightly news, or read a blog post on the latest “super food,” feel free to dig for a little more information if you’re interested in the topic. Many times you can even find the actual research paper in the online version of the journal in which it was published.
Stay tuned for Part Two of this series where I give you a few tips on how to make sense of those journal articles.