’30 mins apart’: What one TIMEly tweet captures about today’s health news landscape

Michael Joyce produces multimedia at HealthNewsReview.org & tweets as @mlmjoyce

Ryan Pauley works at Vox Media and is quite active on social media.

When he astutely tweeted this I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry:

It got retweeted by journalist Harriet Brown (@HarrietBrown) with the comment: “This is the problem with so much health journalism.” Brown is a health writer who teaches magazine journalism at the Newhouse School of Communications at Syracuse University. I got a hold of Brown and asked her to elaborate. Here’s what she wrote:

So much health journalism is written from press releases by people who don’t know how to read an actual study, or take the time to do that, or don’t understand the subject enough to be able to contextualize the findings. The writing is stripped of nuance, especially in the display copy. In this case, the second story (“The problem with your coffee”) actually did contain some good context, but the headlines for each were pretty black-and-white and somewhat misleading. Science tends to be a lot more nuanced than it is generally reported. Yes, it’s a health journalist’s job to interpret findings like these; but most don’t take the time or have the knowledge to do that well.”

In a strange way these conflicted tweets — sent 30 minutes apart by TIME magazine –reminded me of a post I wrote last month about how a single scientific study about vitamin D generated two simultaneous news releases making opposite claims. One of those releases — apropos of Harriet’s criticism — was stripped of nuance (and caveats) and clearly written for allure.

That was a lesson in spin.

But these tweets might be a different lesson. It speaks to what I call the “reckless urgency of social media.” It’s a sort of self-inflicted pressure felt in many news organizations to get something out there quickly — especially if it might be a popular topic — just to seduce clicks.

Context, caution, and accuracy be damned.

Consider this: if you go up to the upper right hand corner of this page and search “coffee” you will come up with over 100 search results on our site. Most address health claims attributed to coffee. These are incredibly wide-ranging and often contradictory. We’ve touched on this before.

It’s compelling to consider that a Pew Research Center study published last year found that roughly 6 out of 10 Americans (62%) get their news on social media and 18 percent do so frequently. In 2012 it was 49 percent; that is quite a jump in just 4 years.

Facebook is the mostly widely used social media platform and now reaches just over two out of three Americans. And two-thirds of those who use Facebook get their news there … probably not exclusively, but still, that’s just under half of all Americans.

It should give us all pause to consider what is flowing around social media. As our publisher, Gary Schwitzer, wrote in this BMJ article: “Social media sites are often mere conduits for news coming from further upstream.” The point he drills down to is that much of what is coming from upstream is polluted by any number of things including sloppy reporting, overt misinformation, and special interests and their self-serving spin.

It’s a disconcerting prospect.  If more people are getting their news via social media — and much of that news is not only polluted, but can be easily spread with a single careless click — then what can we do to minimize or reverse the damage?

Perhaps being observant and critical as Ryan Pauley and Harriet Brown were with these contradictory coffee tweets by TIME is a good way to be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.


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Comments (1)

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Terri F.

April 17, 2017 at 4:57 pm

These contradictory headlines are what drive people crazy when they sincerely want to improve their health. I suffered from weight gain, autoimmune disorders and high blood sugar for years because of all the screaming headlines in the 80’s and 90’s about having to eat low-fat and high carb. Funny how those problems reversed when I started doing the opposite (low-carb, high fat) in 2011 and will never look back. Thank you so much for these types of articles–they are literally lifesavers.