We’re not in the habit of criticizing news organizations for devoting too much space to stories that debunk dubious health claims. But with so many important health stories screaming for attention, we think it’s legitimate to question the Times’s investment of resources in this particular issue. Since there’s almost no human research on the health effects of energy drinks, the question of whether or not they work shouldn’t take very long to address. And we think there was room to discuss the serious health hazards that have been increasingly linked to these products in greater detail.
We’re not taking issue with the substance of the story, which was generally excellent as our score indicates. And we realize that there’s a counter-argument to be made about the significance of this coverage. (Because these drinks are so popular, and some people obviously perceive that they work, it’s an important public service to examine the claims more thoroughly.) We just think there were better, more consequential health stories to put on the front page of one of the nation’s leading newspapers.
Note: as discussed below in our review, Paul Raeburn at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker also had concerns about this story. His post is worth a read. Excerpt:
“In a story of this length, he and his editors could have done a more thorough job of reminding offline readers why these drinks have provoked concern.
The revelation that energy drinks don’t seem to do anything beyond delivering a caffeine jolt is not the kind of news that should earn a place on the front page. I doubt many readers will be surprised by this, and Meier can’t say much with certainty about the drinks because they haven’t been studied.
In my view, the story deserved about half the space it got. Meier’s editors might have done better to put this one on page B7, and the November story about deaths and injuries on page one. Maybe they were atoning today for underplaying the first piece.”
What to cover is arguably as important as how to cover it. There are countless products and treatments that lack strong supporting evidence for health claims. We applaud the Times’s impulse to look skeptically at one of these categories in substantial detail, but is anyone really surprised at the main conclusions here? Couldn’t this prime real estate have been used to highlight more important issues?
The story notes that energy drinks are expensive compared with other sources of caffeine, such as coffee or caffeine tablets. A 16-oz can of monster sells for $2.99.
The story explains that the caffeine contained in energy drinks increases alertness, awareness and athletic performance, but that other energy drink ingredients have no proven effects. Although no absolute risk or benefit is given, this story covers a variety of small studies and evidence types.
The story briefly acknowledges that energy drinks have been linked to reports of deaths and injuries that may be related to their high caffeine content, and there was an online link in the text to a previous story about these concerns. We’ll call this good enough for a satisfactory. However, considering that FDA reports suggest that 18 deaths and more than 150 injuries may be related to energy drinks, we don’t think the story captures the full scope of the potential problem. This deficiency was nicely described by Paul Raeburn at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, who noted that in a 2,000-word piece, there was ample room to do “a more thorough job of reminding offline readers why these drinks have provoked concern.”
Additional comment about kids and teens and use of these drinks along with alcohol would have strengthened the article.
The story reviews the evidence purported to show benefits for certain energy drink ingredients. It emphasizes that there is little proof that these ingredients provide a benefit to energy drink consumers.
No disease mongering.
A number of independent sources are quoted in the story.
Aside from caffeine, we’re not sure that there are any other legal means of increasing alertness. We’ll rate this as not applicable.
The availability of energy drinks is not in question.
The story traces the history of energy drinks in considerable detail.
This story was clearly not based on a press release.