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The BMJ news release that keeps on giving the gift of chocolate hype

One day after we published a terrific guest column on how a BMJ news release sensationalized an observational study, with the headline “It’s official: chocolate linked to heart health,” NBC News kept dripping the chocolate hype.

The BMJ news release spawned countless news stories. Just look at what a Google search turns up.

On Twitter yesterday, BMJ deputy editor Trish Groves, seemingly defensive about guest blogger Kevin Lomangino’s post, wrote:

“Hope you spotted that the press did report the caveats”

Clearly, not all did. Many did not.

Let the NBC TV network evening newscast stand as the latest, and probably best example of how editor Groves’ comment misses the point.

I propose that there is no way that NBC News would have reported that story if the BMJ hadn’t trumpeted it with that news release headline.

[Editor’s note: The NBC News video is no longer available.]  

Here’s what NBC anchor Brian Williams said on the air in his tease at the commercial break prior to the story running:

“The science that just might justify an American addiction.”

And the story lead-in went out of its way to justify why this was so important:

“Bona fide science. A real study of a lot of people.”

NBC didn’t assign health/medicine/science specialists Robert Bazell or Nancy Snyderman to this story, but, rather, a general assignment reporter, who, along with production help, trotted out tired old Forrest Gump clips (“Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re gonna get.”) along with other ways to embellish the story.

Well, run, Forrest, run, because we DO know what we’re gonna get most nights in network TV news health stories.

The NBC piece definitely stated:

“There are benefits… may decrease heart disease by as much as 37 percent.”

The piece ended by quoting Mark Twain:

“The only way to keep your health is to eat what you don’t want, drink what you don’t like, and do what you’d rather not.”

We will end by citing another Mark Twain quote – just substitute “network TV news” for “newspaper” – imagine if Twain had lived to see today’s TV news:

“If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re mis-informed.”

Back in 2008, the editors of the journal PLoS Medicine wrote:

“Schwitzer’s alarming report card of the trouble with medical news stories is thus a wake-up call for all of us involved in disseminating health research–researchers, academic institutions, journal editors, reporters, and media organizations–to work collaboratively to improve the standards of health reporting.”

In this case, the BMJ, NBC News, and many other news organizations missed the wakeup call – or chose to ignore it.

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