KSJ Tracker September 24, 2012

New evidence that sugary soft drinks contribute to obesity--and false balance

New evidence that sugary soft drinks could contribute to obesity was presented at a conference and published in the New England Journal of Medicine last week. 

The AP's Marilynn Marchione wrote that new research "powerfully strengthens the case against soda and other sugary drinks as culprits in the obesity epidemic." Marchione's story nicely recaps the evidence in the new studies and adds thoughtful quotes from appropriate authorities. She took time to make the extra calls, and her lede was strong, but also cautious and appropriate. She followed that immediately by noting that sweet soft drinks interact with genes predisposing some people to obesity, according to the studies.

Kathleen Doheny at WebMD led with the genetic angle, backing into the broader conclusion that the studies provide clear evidence that sweet drinks can lead to obesity. Evidence was already strong that such drinks were linked to obesity, she reports, but one of the research teams wanted to look at how individuals' genetic risks played into the problem, Doheny reports.  

Sharon Begley at Reuters wrote that the studies provide the "strongest evidence yet" that sweetened drinks "play a leading role" in the obesity epidemic and "eliminating them would, more than any other single step, make a huge difference." It's perhaps the strongest lede I saw, and she backs it up.

Scanning other stories, I found that some put the news in the context of New York City's recently approved ban on sugar sodas larger than 16 ounces, and some, inexplicably, did not. The timing of the studies, as the ban was being approved, demanded that reporters put the news in context. I was particularly interested in this because early coverage of the New York City ban notably lacked reporting on the scientific evidence supporting--or opposing--such a ban. This was a nice opportunity to correct that.

What I found most interesting about the coverage, however, was the familiar question of false balance--namely, whether reporters are creating a false balance by repeating beverage association statements that are irrelevant to the studies at hand.

The beverage association certainly has a right to give its point of view, but not when it ignores the story at issue and spits out its standard line: "Obesity is not uniquely caused by any single food or beverage," the beverage association said, in Marchione's story. Obviously. And this: "Studies and opinion pieces that focus solely on sugar-sweetened beverages, or any other single source of calories, do nothing meaningful to help address this serious issue." Yes, they do. 

Standard journalism practice is to let the other side respond, even if it doesn't have anything to say or if it says night is day. In this case, the beverage association is quoted saying something that is false--that is, that studies of a single source of calories are not meaningful. I'm sure the AP's editors would have demanded Marchione add the comment if she'd turned in the story without it. So I'm not faulting her. But I don't think the AP should publish something that isn't true, nor should it allow sources to read their scripts into the record without challenge.

If the beverage association had cited other studies and made a reasonable argument against the new studies, that, in my view, would be appropriate to publish. Or its quotes could have been followed up with something like this: The beverage association had nothing to say about the particulars of the new studies.

Doheny included slightly more direct comment from the beverage association, which said that one of the studies didn't address physical activity or total calories consumed by the subjects, who were children. And it said that the study looked only at 32 genes that account for a small amount of variations in weight. I don't find those comments terribly illuminating, but they are, at least, on point. Doheny also allowed the beverage association to repeat its blanket denial that sugar-sweetened beverages play a small role in the American diet.

Begley likewise repeated the industry's claim that "obesity is not uniquely caused by any single food or beverage," which is true, trivial, and irrelevant. She also included the "do nothing meaningful" line.

For years, when I was covering tobacco and health at the AP, we repeated the industry's claims that cigarette smoking didn't cause lung cancer. We repeated it far too often and for far too long. In the end, the industry conceded.

If the beverage industry is going to send us boilerplate, we ought to ignore it. If industry response, on this issue or any other, is not relevant or simply repeats old claims, reporters ought to say so. And editors should understand this, too.

-Paul Raeburn


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