More than six months after it broadcast two misleading Catalyst programs about diet, medication and heart disease the ABC has admitted there were problems with impartiality and has undertaken corrective action. But there is still something fishy about this.
In October last year ABC television’s science program Catalyst ran two controversial programs purporting to expose myths about diet, medication and cardiovascular disease. In the first program Catalyst presenter Dr Maryanne Demasi challenged the role of dietary saturated fat in affecting risk for coronary heart disease and in the second she questioned the efficacy of statin medication. Essentially, the Catalyst program argued that the world’s leading nutrition organisations and cardiovascular researchers had got it wrong over the last four decades.
Heart Foundation outraged
In an interview on the ABC radio program PM, Maryanne Demasi even stated that the Heart Foundation was ‘certainly supportive’ of the Catalyst program’s evidence. In fact, the Heart Foundation was livid, took offence and submitted a formal complaint. They weren’t alone – the ABC received a total of 146 complaints. To their credit, journalists within the ABC, such as health reporter Dr Norman Swan and Media Watch front man Paul Barry, challenged the accuracy of the programs and the standard of the journalism on display, respectively. For more of detail see my two posts on the Catalyst programs here and here.
Results of independent review
Yesterday, the results of a review of the Catalyst programs by the ABC’s Audience and Consumer Affairs Unit were made public and included findings that standards of impartiality had been breached. Here are some excerpts from the review:
It is clear from the reaction to the program that many members of the audience believed that in both episodes, one side of two highly contentious issues was unduly favoured …
In relation to the first program on saturated fat and heart disease:
In our judgement, the quality of the program would have been enhanced if it had more clearly communicated why the National Heart Foundation hold their views. Little substantive evidence was presented to support their perspective and the strength of the evidence that was referred to was doubted in the narration and directly challenged – and often emphatically rejected – by other contributors. Although the program did not explicitly endorse the unorthodox view, the language used by the reporter tended to add weight to the contrarian argument.
In relation to the second program on statins:
Furthermore, by omitting a principal relevant view – held by the National Heart Foundation and other experts – that statins are useful in primary prevention if carefully targeted, the program had the effect of unduly favouring the perspective that statins are ineffective in primary prevention.
In relation to Maryanne Demasi’s statement on the PM program that the Heart Foundation had signed off on the Catalyst program’s evidence:
While the comment was made in a live radio interview, it was nonetheless a misleading oversimplification which failed to acknowledge the clear and important areas of disagreement between the National Heart Foundation and the overall proposition being presented in the programs.
In summing up:
For Catalyst, the core problem identified in this investigation was omission of important information.
Corrective action undertaken
Yesterday, ABC Managing Director Mark Scott announced that corrective action had been taken:
• The two Catalyst programs had been removed from the program’s website
• The PM program had added an Editor’s Note to the transcript of its story ‘Backlash against ABC’s Catalyst program questioning heart disease-cholesterol links’
• An appropriate entry had been made on the ABC Corrections page.
The Heart Foundation provided a polite response.
I guess the moral of this story is that when you see some misleading information about nutrition and health in the media, do what the Heart Foundation and others did – complain!
But there are still unanswered questions about these Catalyst programs. When the program about saturated fat went to air I thought it was so biased that I was convinced that a commercial interest must be involved, and suggested that it might be the palm oil industry. However, I have since had assurances that this industry was not behind it.
If it wasn’t commercially driven, the whole thing doesn’t make sense. How did a hitherto reputable science journalist, Maryanne Demasi, come up with a bizarre list of poorly qualified ‘experts’ in the United States to be interviewed for the Catalyst programs? And why would a journalist with a PhD accept recommendations about ‘experts’ who had virtually no scientific publications in the relevant field? Wouldn’t that be the first thing to check?
Who pitched this story to Catalyst?
And then there is the issue of cost. Why would the cash-strapped ABC agree to pay to fly Maryanne Demasi all the way to the United States to interview these ‘experts’? How could any responsible manager sign off on such expense?
The whole thing just doesn’t add up.