Do Health Journalists Have Any Responsibility to Be Sensible: Looking at the Daily Mail

The People’s Medical Journal carries a new, fabulous, science-defying, weight-loss product story: How three cups of green tea a day can help you lose weight – even if you keep eating junk food.

Research shows the tea helps the pounds melt away, even while still eating junk food.

As you might imagine, this claim has excited considerable interest in the comments, with several people wanting to get their hands on this in time to trim down before Christmas.[a]

Six paragraphs into the story, you find out that the research is in rats. And, you have to be willing or able to interpret the text to realise that the research is not available in a peer-reviewed journal but is about to be presented at a conference, and the standards for presenting at a conference or meeting tend to be substantially lower than for peer-reviewed journals.

Spearole Tea…cuts blood pressure and makes it easier for the body to process sugar, a medical conference will hear tomorrow…

Dr Brown, a pharmacologist at Brisbane’s Queensland University, studied the effect of the tea on the health of a group of rats.

However, apart from the single use of the word creatures, that is the entire indication that this research did not take place in humans. In fact, if you were scanning the text, use of words such as waistline might reinforce the notion that we are discussing obese humans (then again, I’m not a rat fancier, I’ve never watched Ben or Willard, so what do I know). Plus, claims like this, that waistlines and blood pressure decrease:

despite the continuing to eat junk food, the Australian Health and Medical Research Congress will hear.

with the implied agency of eating junk food, make me think of people rather than rats. Particularly when it is immediately followed up by several paragraphs of discussion about obese people, the ‘obesity epidemic’, cardiovascular disease etc. I have a problem with a discussion about obesity and junk food that doesn’t stress that the most important considerations are a lifestyle overhaul and an examination of social, environmental or economic contributory factors rather than a “Carry on, as you where, but drink this tea and you will be fine”. It is disappointing that there is no discussion as to whether the tea is said to increase the metabolic rate (plausible with green tea) or if there is basic research that supports the suggestion about anti-inflammatory effects although the mechanism by which this reduces abdominal fat is unclear. The advertising material for the tea stresses its anti-oxidant content, from what are (inevitably) described as “superfoods”, albeit for no readily apparent reason.

What is slightly worrying, is that the Daily Mail item about weight loss includes this:

Dr Brown said that experiments showed ibuprofen also help shed weight, however their side-effects mean they are unlikely to ever be recommended for such a purpose.

It is thought that both the drugs and the tea work by stopping the fat cells from releasing inflammatory chemicals that attract more fat causing them to grow in size.

I have no idea whether these experiments with ibuprofen were conducted in rats, humans or any other species. I do know that NSAIDs are neither sweeties nor a cup of tea that tastes like chewing-gum; use of NSAIDs may be associated with gastric erosion and some potentially serious side-effects. This is not an area where self-experimentation is harmless. At the risk of showing my susceptibility to W. Phillips Davison’s third person effect,[b] I have some concerns about whether it is sensible to make such a throw-away comment and whether it was sensible or appropriate for the journalist to make this comment in such a context-free way. Even in the comments, there are misgivings about the wisdom of mentioning this use for ibuprofen.

An online search revealed no clues to where this tea could be purchased. It would be great to find out where in time for the festive season. Perhaps it is not too wise to mention the use of anti-inflammatory drugs for reversing weight gain in an article such as this as some people would not care about damaging their health in order to make extra pounds melt away. [queenofsheba, Cairo, Egypt, 19/11/2008 5:04]

The journalist might have found this aspect of ibuprofen and the putative role of inflammation in obesity to be so interesting that s/he couldn’t resist including it. Perhaps there were some caveats that the sub-editors removed. It’s difficult to tell, but, as it reads, it is irresponsible if it encourages people to take NSAIDs when there is no clinical indication for them. And people can be very desperate when it comes to weight-loss.

Several people were (surprisingly) unable to locate stockists for this tea. If they had, a very small number of people might consider it cost effective to self-experiment with NSAIDs. The tea is £15.15 for a 150g packet (not including shipping) or, roughly £100 per kilo. Apparently, (without including the costs of post and packaging), each cup of tea will cost 15p and for 3 a day, that is 45p (and that is true only if people manage to make 100 cups of tea from one packet).

Self-experimentation is not only inappropriate in such contexts, it could have very dangerous side-effects. Does the Daily Mail have any responsibility to warn its readers about this when weight-loss (and concomitant self-image) is a subject that causes a good deal of anxiety and heart-ache, or should one repose more confidence in the commonsense of most readers?

Notes

[a] Several people in the comments ask where they can buy this tea and joke about wanting to buy it before Christmas.

[b] W. Phillips Davison’s third person effect.

One possible explanation for the fact that people on both sides of an issue can see the media as biased against their own point of view is that each observer assumes a disproportionate effect will be achieved by arguments or facts supporting the ‘wrong’ side of the issue. Others (the third persons), the observer reasons, will be unduly impressed by these facts or argument; they do not have the information that enables me to form a correct opinion. It is probable that, from the point of view of the partisans, balanced media presentation would require a sharp tilt toward the ‘correct’ side of the issue. This would compensate for the intellectual frailty of third persons and would, according to the partisan, ensure that the media achieved a truly balanced presentation. But, if the third-person effect hypothesis is correct, why are not the facts and arguments on the ‘correct’ sides as well as the ‘wrong’ side seen as having a disproportionate effect on others?

BPSDB

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “Do Health Journalists Have Any Responsibility to Be Sensible: Looking at the Daily Mail

  1. Claire

    Do rats even have waistlines?

  2. Do Health Journalists Have Any Responsibility to Be Sensible?
    Personal opinion: I think so. Some people [a significant number, as far as I can tell] make decisions based on what they read in the newspapers. One example: MMR uptake went from around 90-95% down to around 75% following the media’s MMR hoax.

  3. Wulfstan

    No fans of Desbarollda, the Waltzing Mouse who might comment on the waistline issue of rodents? Much as I had heard of Ben (courtesy of Michael Jackson) and I think there are some cartoons (isn’t there an Aardman one, Ratatouille?) I have never associated rats with waistlines.

    If this is just about rats, no matter how good the animal model, this can’t be ready to publicise.

    It is irresponsible to mention ibuprofen without all the warnings about associated gastric or other side-effects.

    It would be good to see Health News Review or Behind the Headlines pick up on this story.

  4. teek

    classic – ‘research,’ sponsored by the manufacturers of the tea themselves (slightly surprised you didn’t mention that…!), shows that in rats this product causes weight loss. as you said, so what…?! the fact that it’s unpublished is one thing, but does anyone mention the fact that green tea has caffeine so the appropriate control rats ought to have received some dosing of caffeine? considering most overweight people probably drink their fair share of caffeine, how does the “three cups a day” come into it – 3 cups more than you currently consume?

    as for responsibility to be sensible, the answer has to be yes they do but they rarely fulfill said responsibility…

  5. Reference to the caffeine content of green tea is obliquely buried in the musing about whether the proposed mechanism is a raising of the metabolic rate – rather too oblique.

    Didn’t mention the source of funding because I was more exercised about
    *the potential for some people reading this as a recommendation for ibuprofen and weightloss
    *the disconnect between the optimism of the piece and the fact that the study (so far) is in rats and hasn’t been published.
    However, I should have mentioned the funding.

  6. A bit more on the question of whether the media have a duty to be sensible:
    From the Bad Science blog, a “systematic review from the Cochrane Collaboration found 5 studies looking at the use of specific health interventions before and after media coverage of specific stories, and each found that favorable publicity was associated with greater use, and unfavorable with lower.” Abstract is on ScienceDirect.
    Re the alternative: “or should one repose more confidence in the commonsense of most readers?” That’s an interesting one [that might also remind some of the Earl of Salisbury in Shakespeare’s Richard II?]. When it comes to health stories in the media, I tend to think that readers would need to be both sufficiently motivated and competent enough to understand the science in order to come to a sensible conclusion (probably because I read someone else making this point somewhere and thought it made sense).
    When it comes to things that people want to hear (e.g., there’s a miracle weight loss remedy that really, really works – even if you eat junk food!), I think people are too willing to suspend their disbelief and unlikely to be sceptical of the claims made.
    That being the case, I’d still put the onus on the media, but improving the public understanding of science wouldn’t hurt.

  7. jdc, I don’t know if you’ve seen it but there is a thoughtful piece on what constitutes scientific literacy and just when it should be introduced into the general education.

    We’ve had some discussion of the influence of media coverage on health stories and it does seem to be considerable.

    Perhaps until we have achieved Utopia and the majority of the audience for Daily Mail (and other papers) would be rated as scientifically literate, then the journalists should exercise due care and discretion, particularly when writing on hot-button issues such as this one.

  8. dvnutrix – thanks for the scienceblogs link, it wasn’t one I’d seen. Interested to see Feynman referred to by some in the comments that follow. I always remember this from his Caltech address:

    But this long history of learning how not to fool ourselves–of
    having utter scientific integrity–is, I’m sorry to say, something
    that we haven’t specifically included in any particular course that
    I know of. We just hope you’ve caught on by osmosis.

    He also remarks on the need for scientists to employ “extra integrity” when explaining something to a layman.
    Link.

    Re influence of media coverage: I remember reading about the way German TV dealt with nutritionists and conflicts of interest. I’d seen the coverage Ben Goldacre had given Phillips et al on the Bad Science blog, but the work by Pareek & Pattison showing the influence of media (especially TV) on the decision to vaccinate was new to me at the time – and worrying.

    Journalists exercising due care and discretion? Yes, it would be nice. I’m not overly optimistic though.

  9. Chloe

    Do Health Journalists Have Any Responsibility to Be Sensible?

    I ask…. does the reader have ability to use logic, apply discretion?

    This is a good critique. I have just found out about Spearole tea (www.drred.com.au) as it was on a national news bulletin last night in Australia.

    I have found that every journalist on the planet quoted the SAME quote

    and EVERY journalist on the planet (except Aussie journos) got the name of the university wrong. They all incorrectly write Queensland University, when there is no such beast … it is The University Of Queensland.

    So as you can see, EVERY journalist is exposed as a fraud and plagerist and incompetant, as they don’t even check basic facts…simply do the ‘copy paste’. Every Editor of these newspapers should be contacted about the inferior quality their journalists perpertrate.

    So we all know the studies on Green Tea and immune system, to fight cancer, aids, and even Stroke [http://tinyurl.com/cvutrr] etc…

    But on weightloss I did find that;

    CHICAGO STUDY with GREEN TEA
    1. In 2000 The Univesity of Chicago released study results that Green Tea may help weight loss, but issued warning
    – Shutsang Liao: That’s a lot of tea
    http://magazine.uchicago.edu/0006/research/research-print.html
    Scientists at the U of C’s Tang Center for Herbal Medicine Research have found that a major chemical component of green tea may lead to weight loss.

    In laboratory studies, rats injected with epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) derived from green tea leaves lost their appetites and consumed up to 60 percent less food after seven days of daily injections, losing as much as 21 percent of their body weight.

    Writing in the March issue of Endocrinology, biochemistry & molecular biology professor Shutsung Liao, PhD’61, and colleagues noted that it is unclear exactly how EGCG controls appetite and body weight. Liao warns that the diet should not be tried at home: to achieve the same results, a human would have to drink green tea almost constantly. Moreover, he adds, some of the hormonal changes observed in the rats could have negative effects in humans, especially in younger people.

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