Sunday, May 30, 2010

Cigarettes or eggs

Journalists like to think they write the first draft of history. More often, they write the first draft of "As the World Turns" (which in its time was my grandmother's favorite story - no wonder journalists are losing audience). All dialog, no resolution.

The New York Times had a long story yesterday about the possible regulation of salt in prepared foods. Mostly, it's a history of attempts to justify or forestall regulation of the amount of salt that food businesses use.

The article seems sympathetic to regulation, but it never provides its readers with a way to sort out the truth of one claim from another, even provisionally, as empirical claims of this type have to be sorted out. Instead, it spends vast arid salt flats (heh) on what a publisher might call news you can use - dissertations on Cheez-Its and chicken noodle soup and how good salt tastes.

This is really news you can relate to. It's not intended to edify but to draw you into a commonplace domestic narrative and make you feel you have expertise on the subject. Without helping you gain that expertise...

Not that there weren't glaring opportunities:

In 1982, [soup company] Campbell sponsored an American Heart Association symposium that included a study on calcium, which is now seen as having only a small role in reducing hypertension, and another that asserted that only some people were susceptible to hypertension from salt.
Thirty years later, I explain my own excellent blood pressure despite significant salt intake by guessing that I'm merely not susceptible. Still, I would expect something new from the intervening three decades. If there's a genetic link, I'd expect it to be confirmed by subsequent research and probably even available as a blood test by now. Instead, reporter Michael Moss simply drops the ball. Maybe scientists have too, but Moss owes readers the follow-up.

The Times story ran in the Science section. Is it too much to ask that it sort out the state of the science on the connection between salt and hypertension? If that connection really only affects a segment of the population, how can we tell whether we're in that segment? That would be news we could really use.

There are further hints at facts in the story:
Making deep cuts in salt can require more expensive ingredients that can hurt sales. Companies that make low-salt pasta sauces improve the taste with vine-ripened tomatoes and fresh herbs that cost more than dried spices and lower grade tomatoes.
Also dropped. It could be that my b.p. is good because so little of what I eat comes out of a box, highly processed. But you'd have to be a hippie or something equally dismissable to expect Americans to eat real fresh food.

American media consistently fail even to try to distinguish fact from self-interested argument. Is the prepared food industry fighting a fight like the cigarette industry, defending its merchandise of death, or like the egg producers, whose product contains cholesterol but has been shown to be healthy, leading the Heart Association to withdraw its advice to avoid eggs?

The methods that corporations use to defend their income are the same, whether they're scientifically justified or not. Media can't get to the bottom of them by reporting about how the industry is lobbying.

Somewhere, some reporter has to remember - or reinvent - getting to the bottom of the story. Finding out what's actually true...

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