How many people died as a consequence of the ABC’s Catalyst cholesterol program?

According to a new University of Sydney study thousands of preventable heart attacks and strokes may occur as a result of a biased television program.

On 24 and 31 October 2013, ABC television’s Catalyst program aired a two-part series that questioned the link between blood cholesterol and heart disease, and whether current dietary advice or statin medication was effective in lowering heart disease risk. Although the first program on diet was very biased Catalyst may have got away with it as the science around diet and heart disease is considered rather ‘soft’ and is still unfolding.

However, the second program on statins, cholesterol and heart disease was on very firm scientific ground. The last time I looked there were 24 meta-analyses on statin medication and heart disease risk and all showed benefit. But rather than present this perspective Catalyst decided that the public interest would be better served by sowing seeds of doubt.

There were howls of protest. To their credit, other journalists at the ABC took aim at Catalyst. Media Watch presenter Paul Barry said … Catalyst struck us as sensationalist and grossly unbalanced; and some of their so-called ‘experts’ had questionable qualifications.

The ABC’s health guru Dr Norman Swan considered the health implications saying that People will die as a result of the Catalyst program …. It doesn’t get much stronger than that. Was Swan going over the top, or did he just have a good understanding of his subject?

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False balance: the distortion of nutrition science by the media

What drives the media’s bias when reporting on nutrition? Is it a desire for sensationalism, misguided good intentions, postmodern contempt for facts, or just commerce? Surely the general public deserves better.

The media doesn’t manage nutrition very well. Apparently, fundamental concepts of good nutrition such as variety, balance and moderation just aren’t very sexy so the media is forever souping things up a bit as it attempts to meet the general public’s insatiable appetite for articles about food, nutrition and diets. Instead of old nutrition truism like ‘There are no good and bad foods, only good and bad diets’ we read that some foods are ‘toxic’ while others are superfoods. All quite over the top.

Fortunately, every now and then a health journalist will examine a nutrition topic in depth, potentially providing the general public with an opportunity to gain some real understanding of nutrition and to hear the views of leading experts.

But with the opportunity there is also a threat – false balance.

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