This article has been sat in my drafts for a little while now, but given the current climate, it feels appropriate to publish it now. It is very difficult to consume any kind of media now without coming into contact with headlines and articles sharing stories, claims and research in nutrition. Quite often, these headlines will often directly contradict one another, pushing people to side one way or another, or just be left in the middle feeling confused.
Journalists’ job is to pick up new research, create an eye-catching, engaging piece and to turn it around as fast as possible to be the first to break a story. However, as a consumer it can be really hard to discern an article publishing good quality work from a solid piece of research to a sensationalised piece from questionable research.
Some researchers have gone as far as to create assessment tools for health professionals to refer to when judging the quality of an article in the media. You can make your own checklist by seeing how many of the following points an article meets. The first eight especially are things we really want to see in an article to know that it is trustworthy.
- Does the article mention the journal that the research was published in, and what universities, research centres of businesses were involved in the research? This gives you an idea of how reputable the source of information is.
- Has the lead author been mentioned? This allows you to search for the author, see what previous work they have done, and even get in contact with them if you have a question.
- Does the article say how many subjects were involved in the study? The higher the number the better -some research studies have tens of thousands of participants.
- Does the article show whether the study has similar results to other research? Whilst novel findings are exciting, and can be valid, if one paper that only had 10 participants involves states complete opposite findings to several other papers with many more participants, then it should be taken with a pinch of salt. Papers that show similar results to existing understanding strengthen our understanding, even if they’re less exciting than new findings.
- Have statistics been used in an accurate way? Statistics can be manipulated, so having a few figures compared against one another are often better than one snuck into a paragraph without any context.
- Does the article explain the background of the research, and does the headline reflect the findings? Look for background towards the end of an article, and double check that the headline isn’t making a bold claim, when the text says very little.
In contrast, if you see any of these points, remove a tick from your mental checklist and beware:
- Does the article seem overly optimistic? Let’s say an article claims a certain (expensive) food cures cancer. Someone with a diagnosis could choose to eat that food, at best wasting money, or at worst missing medication in favour of the food and becoming more unwell, or worse. Articles can cause real harm if they report research in an exaggerated fashion.
- Was the research based on animal or cell culture studies without stating so? Animal studies cannot always be extrapolated neatly into human health, and yet headlines often gloss over this.
- Are there any claims about a breakthrough or cure? Run for the hills. Especially if the article is about nutrition research, real cures are not that common. And if one was found, it would likely be making front page news.
These points are a quick summary of just one of the tools in place to evaluate nutrition and health claims in the media. An article could be written in such a way that it passes this checklist, but reports on a flawed study. The results would be incorrect, but the article would pass the test. However, to help you become more confident at sifting fact from BS, having these points in the back of your mind will give you a helping hand.
Reference: Robinson et al. 2013. Analysis of health stories in daily newspapers in the UK.
Make sure you never lose these tips, and help others to swerve misleading articles by pinning to your Pinterest boards.