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.

What is false balance?

Wikipedia defines false balance as … a real or perceived media bias, where journalists present an issue as being more balanced between opposing viewpoints than the evidence actually supports. Journalists may present evidence and arguments out of proportion to the actual evidence for each side, or may censor information which would establish one side’s claims as baseless.

A good example of false balance in recent times was the ABC’s Catalyst program about saturated fat, cholesterol and heart disease. The views of two Australian experts were contrasted with those of several gentlemen from the United States. To the viewer the differing perspectives would have appeared as a legitimate debate among equally qualified experts. However, a quick check of the credentials and publication history of the US speakers showed that they had little expertise in the field. The perceived balance in the program was not real – false balance.

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Motives behind false balance

One possible motive for false balance in health journalism is the desire for sensationalism. While an accurate assessment of the links between diet, cholesterol and heart disease may be a bit dry and therefore unlikely to generate big ratings, a contentious debate in which a longstanding tenet of modern nutrition is challenged is likely to draw an audience.

Some argue that false balance can be an unintended consequence of a journalist just trying to do a good job by providing alternative views. But this comes unstuck if there is ‘false equivalence’. For example, in a discussion on fluoridation and dental health, is it right for the views of an eminent Professor of Preventive Dentistry to be given equal weight to those of a concerned member of the general public with no background or knowledge in the health sciences? Journalists can’t be expected to have deep knowledge of everything they write about and their false balance may be inadvertent. But if a journalist knows that the views of the concerned citizen are based on false information, is the journalist providing balance by broadcasting their views or knowingly distorting the facts?

One issue here may be the postmodern contempt for facts. Whereas science is based around generating and testing hypotheses as a means of developing an objective and reliable foundation for knowledge, those journalists schooled in postmodernism eschew the very idea of universal truths. If this philosophy is at play the role of the journalist can stray from reporter to activist.

Unfortunately, commerce also plays a part as some nutrition articles are paid editorial, but this is not the journalist’s fault.

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Catalyst on low carb diets

Towards the end of last year ABC television broadcast ‘Low Carb Diet fact or fiction’, the Catalyst program’s first real foray into diet and health since its infamous cholesterol programs, which were eventually withdrawn. Were lessons learned? Yes and no. Certainly the moderate views provided by Associate Professor Tim Crowe and dietitian Melanie McGrice were welcome and the tone was less sensational than previously. But was this a case of balance or false balance? Was the evidence presented out of proportion to the actual evidence for each side of the argument?

There were certainly many more speakers advocating low carbohydrate diets than there were recommending more moderate approaches. Of more concern, seven of these speakers (eight if the Catalyst presenter is included) have been associated with Low Carb Downunder, an organisation whose funding source is undeclared. Rather than representing a range of independent views these speakers were in lockstep with one another, though viewers would have been unaware of this. The airing of the Catalyst program actually coincided with the commencement of a nationwide seminar series by Low Carb Downunder, providing an ideal advertisement. A happy coincidence I am sure.

In a science program that interviewed three people with professor in their title and five medical doctors or PhDs, we can only wonder why celebrity chef Pete Evans was interviewed. His contribution was to extol the virtues of animal fats and coconut oil – at one point he shoved a spoonful of coconut oil in his mouth stating ‘you can eat it by the spoonful’.

Maybe he was just there to boost the ratings. But given that Pete Evans is associated with Low Carb Downunder, and given that the invited speaker at the recent Low Carb Downunder events has a coconut tree in his logo, it’s not hard to imagine a commercial motive.

False balance?

So yes, false balance on display again. But why? As new scientific evidence on the role of carbohydrates in the diet emerges expert views are in a state of flux, providing health journalists with a rich vein of nutrition controversy to mine. The general public deserves to hear the real debate and the views of the experts who are engaged in it.

Message to all dietitian-nutritionists: Feel free to send examples of biased articles about nutrition to The Sceptical Nutritionist.

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15 thoughts on “False balance: the distortion of nutrition science by the media

  1. Loved this. However readers would also be aware of the very real dangers of journalists relying on false balance to make stories more interesting or appear more even-handed.

    For example Pete Evans’ comments about monounsaturated fat were plain wrong and had to be retracted by the ABC – not a good look for a science show that’s supposed to be all about the facts.


    • Hello Toni. I can forgive Pete Evans for making such a blunder – he’s a chef, not a nutritionist. But any dietitian would have spotted it. Given the problems of the past I can’t understand why Catalyst didn’t get someone to review the program before it went to air. They need a nutrition consultant – preferably not one affiliated with Low Carb Downunder. Regards, Bill

  2. What about the false balance views of qualified nutrition experts? The people who jump on board the latest diet trend to increase their profile or profits. They take a small amount of evidence and promote to the masses. I have seen undergraduates with nutrition degrees pushing paleo, low carb eating and I’ve seen two noticeable nutrition experts in the fitness industry push the low carb / high protein diets for many years.
    Love your work Gabby keep up the great work.

    • Hello Julian. I think that’s a slightly different issue – the tendency to jump on bandwagons for profile or profit. It’s certainly prevalent and not just among undergraduates. There is a professor in the obesity field who 20 years ago said all the population needs to do is eat less fat; now the same person says it’s eat less sugar. The intellectual underpinning (for both) was pathetic but ‘experts’ have egos too and public profile is important for some – that’s part of the problem.
      There is a real dearth of scientific leadership in nutrition at present. Regards, Bill

  3. Insightful post. One of my favorite forms of false balance is the one-on-one debate. Broadcasts and articles can make it appear that the opposing views are split evenly down the middle, when in reality there is an overwhelming consensus among scientific professionals on the topic–such is the case with global warming.

    • Hello Tara. The topic of global warming is frequently mentioned when false balance in the media is being discussed. Regards, Bill

  4. Good summary once again, Bill. I still cannot understand how the ABC Science Unit could let the Catalyst thing get by. Let’s hope they learned a lesson.

  5. I really have to take issue with this statement Bill: “Apparently, fundamental concepts of good nutrition such as variety, balance and moderation just aren’t very sexy”! Variety -yes! Balance- yes! Moderation – well maybe in the past but now! No way! There is so much poor quality food in the supermarkets that eating a moderate amount of it is a disaster! Now whilst I am a bit special (Coeliac, allergic to soy and a few other issues) I am finding that more and more people are in a similar boat to me! And the truth is I proudly wear my paleo T-shirts and lend people my various “popular books” and encourage people to eat in a different way (I eat high fat low carb paleo/primal) because I get to be well. I know you think that greed is at the bottom of this but I would suggest it is just lots and lots of people (like me) who used to be sick and are now really well!

  6. Hi Jenny. ‘Variety, balance, moderation’ were not my words – they were the concepts promoted by the Australian Nutrition Foundation from about 1980. I took moderation to mean ‘in a moderate manner’ and I still think it’s a useful concept, whether it be applied to people currently stuffing themselves with poor quality food or to those who take an obsessive approach to healthy eating.

    I get the impression that you think the quality of diets today is worse than it was in years gone by. What do you base this on? Regards, Bill

  7. Where to start? As always, with the facts.
    You express concern about the amount of processed food consumed but what is the relationship between food processing and health? What’s the nature of your concern and the evidence to support it? Are all the baked goods in the supermarket today any worse for us than the biscuits, cakes and pastries that my mother used to bake up at home in the 1950s?
    Some good references on how genetic modification has affected health would be a good start to that discussion.
    And some good references on how food additives have affected health would be a good start to that particular discussion.
    Increase in sugar consumption? What increase in sugar consumption? All lines of evidence indicate per capita consumption of sugar in Australia is falling. We are not Americans. In fact, sugar consumption in the US appears to have been falling for over a decade.
    What decrease in fibre? Again, we are not Americans – our fibre consumption is double that of the US.
    Let’s not address imagined problems. Regards, Bill

    • Hi Bill, like you I too am excited about the drop in sugar consumption in Australia, although I think it needs to drop significantly more and I think we need to look at changing sugar consumption for the last 100 years not the last 10 years. You are right it is easier to find American data than Australian data, but I thought this was interesting: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25439182 and shows that way too many teenagers are eating what I would consider poor quality food.

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