Most readers would take the headline “U.S. panel triples Vitamin D intake guideline” to mean that people should seek to increase their consumption, when in fact the committee concluded that while recommending a higher daily intake of vitamin D than another committee did in 1997, almost all Americans already consume enough D and calcium. By including multiple comments from members of the committee as well as other experts who dissent from some of the report findings, the story shows readers that while this report represents a consensus, it does not mean there is unanimity among researchers. This story should have alerted readers that at least some of the experts quoted appear to have financial interests in this field.
The huge national spending on vitamin D supplements shows that people are interested in the potential health benefits. While this story does a generally good job on the details of the Institute of Medicine report and reactions to it, casual readers will be misled by the headline and lead sentence that are out of sync with the tenor of the recommendations. In addition, there is a tone to the article – largely through the voices of interviewees – that may lead readers to think that the IOM panel was far too conservative in its conclusions. In comparison, the NY Times piece early and often stresses – early and often – that supplements are “unnecessary, harmful” and that “this report will make people more cautious.”
Readers may also want to see Paul Raeburn’s comments on the Knight Science Journalism Tracker about different framing of stories on this IOM report: “How did we arrive at so many stories out of one report? …None of these stories is wrong. They simply reflect better, or worse, choices concerning what to focus on in a report such as this with multiple conclusions.”
Although this story does not specifically report the cost of Vitamin D supplements, it does note that Americans spent $425 million on Vitamin D supplements in 2009 and that the spending had increased 10-fold since 2001. Simply reporting the list price of Vitamin D pills, which are just a few pennies each, might lead readers to dismiss the cost implications of this sort of recommendation; so reporting the national spending is more informative.
Despite the clashing headline and lead sentence that appear to imply that Americans would benefit from increasing their vitamin D consumption, the body of the story clearly reports the conclusion of the Institute of Medicine committee that almost all Americans already consume enough vitamin D and calcium to maintain their bones… and that evidence is lacking to conclude there are other health benefits. Readers are also shown comments from individual researchers who believe their studies point to other benefits. Some of the comments appear to misstate what the Institute of Medicine actually concluded, for example, that the committee “appreciated that everyone needs more Vitamin D.” Nevertheless, on balance readers should be able to distinguish between the recommendations of the IOM committee and the opinions of individual scientists.
The story doesn’t define precisely what is meant by “bone health” or “skeletal health;” however, since the IOM report made its recommendation based on a broad review of the evidence, rather that a single experiment, it does not seem necessary for this story to try to include detailed numbers about bone health or other outcomes.
Although the story mentions that the Institute of Medicine committee defined upper limits of vitamin D and calcium consumption, below which harms are unlikely, it does not tell readers that the report highlighted the potential harms of excessive consumption of calcium has been associated with kidney stones and that very high levels of vitamin D are known to cause kidney and tissue damage. Increased rates of bone fractures and overall mortality have also been reported in some studies that the IOM committee looked at. (The New York Times story, by comparison, touched on most of these harms.)
The story is clear that the Institute of Medicine report is based on a review of the available evidence on vitamin D and calcium. It notes that the committee found many of the studies were not able to demonstrate cause-and-effect and that the results were often contradictory, except for consistent evidence of benefits for bone health.
The story also includes comments from dissenting researchers. These comments help readers understand that while this report represents a consensus of experts, there is still active debate about key aspects of the role of vitamin D and calcium in health.
The story clearly reports that the Institute of Medicine committee concluded most Americans already consume adequate amounts of vitamin D. The headline, however, could lead casual readers to believe that the report urges a tripling of vitamin D consumption, the opposite of the actual intent of the Institute of Medicine committee.
A mixed bag on this. The story includes comments from multiple independent sources.
However, the story can be criticized for not clearly stating some potential conflicts of interest. For instance, one of the critics of the Institute of Medicine committee’s conclusions, Bruce W. Hollis, has been a consultant to a company that sells diagnostic tests for vitamin D blood levels and he was awarded at least one patent for a vitamin D assay.
Inventor: Hollis, Bruce Warren (Charleston, SC) 1998 Vitamin D assay Assignee: Nhh, Biologics (East Amherst, NY) patent number: 5821020 http://www.freepatentsonline.com/5821020.html
That’s worth at least a nod in the story.
The story explains that there are alternatives to supplements; that vitamin D is included in foods (natural and fortified) and that vitamin D is produced in our skin when exposed to sunlight.
The story reports that Vitamin D is present in certain foods, as a fortified element in many foods, as a common pill and as a byproduct of exposure to sunlight.
There is no claim of novelty.
The story does not appear to rely on a news release.