Flat Earth News

Well, thanks to some trouble with my old webhosts I have been offline for a while but as you can see, all has been restored and here we are again, trawling the Daily Mail and other newspapers to see what is happening in their worlds today. My better half very kindly bought me a copy of Flat Earth News by Nick Davies for Christmas and it is a fascinating read. One of the central arguments of the book is that newspapers are money-making machines that have cut staffing to a minimum and churn out news based on Associated Press stories, who in turn get their stories largely through PR sources. Because newspapers are poorly staffed and each reporter gets little time to fact check, reporters merely rewrite press releases (or copy them word for word under the byline Daily Mail Reporter for example) and we have what has been labelled ‘churnalism’.

The book makes a detailed and valid argument and I cannot help but be even more suspicious of newspaper stories now, and lo and behold first day that Angry Mob is back I see this story in the Mail (as well as every other local and national newspaper – churnalism is very powerful): ‘Breast milk is NOT better than baby formula, scientists claim‘. Obviously, the baby product industry is massive and parents are faced with a stupendous amount of artificial products that are supposed to enhance the health of their baby – so much so that you really wonder just how anyone managed to raise a child before the industrial revolution. I immediately Googled Professor Sven Carlsen to see what came up and found another blog doing the same:

I quickly goggled Professor Sven Carlsen’s name and found out that he had participated in a research funded by a pharmaceutical company called Glaxo Wellcome AS.

However, this may not be a direct link, but it made me to be suspicious of the veracity of the research.

OK, not exactly dynamite proof that the research is bogus, but interesting nonetheless and one can imagine the sort of impact such massive coverage of how good baby formula is will drive up sales of it. Another blog has looked at the way that the Mail article is written and concludes:

you find that Prof. Carlsen does not disagree with the evidence regarding the benefits of breastfeeding.

Even the Daily Mail admits:
“Prof Carlsen’s team reviewed data from more than 50 international studies looking at the relationship between breastfeeding and health. Most concluded that the more children were breastfed, the healthier they were. On the surface this was correct, said Prof Carlsen, from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim.”

The hypothesis that Prof. Carlsen is proposing is that mothers reach for formula because they have excess male hormone…

Surely a more relevant headline would be: “Excess male hormone leads mother to bottle feed and harms babies claims scientist”…

Rather than rushing to comment, however, I believe this whole story needs to be approached with a great deal more caution than that demonstrated by the Daily Mail and some other journalists.

Of course, the whole point of Flat Earth News is that it isn’t considered, it is a rushed rehash of an Associated Press story based on a press release. The Daily Mail covers this story because it knows every other media outlet is – it is on safe ground and following the media consensus. Obviously the Daily Mail is perhaps changing the slant of its article to create more panic or controversy, but look at local media (who may be rehashing the Mail article) and they seem to be using the same angle (do a Google search for Professor Sven Carlsen to get almost identical coverage through hundreds of media outlets).

What is important to remember is that the media have not read this report in full, and are not going to. Neither have I, but I am not rushing to the conclusion that breast-feeding is not best and I am certainly not giving that conclusion to millions of readers.

What I am pointing out is that the journalist who rehashed this story is unlikely to have even the vaguest idea of the validity of this research (and is almost certainly not an expert in the science of breastfeeding vs formula), or whether the slant that has appeared on their desk to be rewritten bears any relation to the original research in the first place. The journalist does not have enough time to fact check or verify the story and they certainly do not have enough time to read the research to really see what it is arguing or proving. Churnalism just rewrites it for the target audience of the paper and puts the information out as quickly as possible – whether the information has any validity is irrelevant.

Of course, if this story does spark a follow up comment from relevant scientists who may see fit to point out the inaccuracies of the media coverage then it would never receive even a fraction of the coverage that the original churnalism did. This leads Google to be clogged up with the consensus media view of ‘truth’ rather than ‘truth’ itself.

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