Deficiencies in TV network stories on vitamin D deficiency in kids

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There was a lot of disease-mongering and fear-mongering wrapped into the ABC, CBS and NBC stories on vitamin D in kids this week. All three tried to link insufficiency with disease. This is simplistic, inaccurate, and may cause undue fear in viewers.

Here’s a story-by-story breakdown, with all three complete reviews available on the site.

ABC World News Tonight

Excerpt of our review:

Blurs the line between vitamin D deficiency & insufficiency, which is clearly defined in the research being reported. Assuming that insufficiency equals disease is incorrect, and is disease mongering….Of the three TV network stories we reviewed on this same topic, ABC was the only one to include independent voices.

NBC Nightly News

Excerpt of our review:

It fell short because it:

* Committed disease-mongering, linking vitamin D to other conditions which are common and can be caused by many other things.

* Failed to point out the limitations of such observational studies. You can’t prove causation from an observational study. The story should have at least nodded in this direction.

* Didn’t evaluate the study or the quality of the evidence in any way. It just took the researchers’ work at face value.

* Only included the perspectives of one of the researchers, but sought no independent voice.

* May have caused unnecessary fear.

CBS Evening News (the worst of the three)

Excerpt of our review:

“It would be good for them to turn off the TV and send their kids outside.” That’s the advice one study author gave another news organization ( about what to do about children who aren’t getting enough vitamin D. It’s tempting to recommend that same action to viewers who saw the CBS Evening News promote reliance on supplement pills.

The story combined information taken from studies on both vitamin D levels and fish oil recommendations in two different medical journals. The story did not include any independent experts, despite the fact that many experts and organizations are skeptical about the conclusions of the authors of these studies. The story also left out cautionary statements in the studies about the need to do randomized controlled experiments before recommending vitamin D supplements for children.

Perhaps the worst offense was the misuse of graphics. It is a tenet of television that when the pictures and the words send conflicting messages, the pictures always win. Yet as the CBS doctor talked about eating more fish, viewers saw pictures of fish oil supplement capsules. During the studio lead, as the anchor talked about 7 out of 10 children “not getting enough” vitamin D, the graphic behind her said “Vitamin D Deficiency,” even though the study reported that fewer than 1 in 10 children was actually deficient.

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