How the media twists the truth
The media certainly has a way with words. As students, we spend countless hours on Facebook and multiple other types of social media, of which are plagued by advertisements and faulty articles with larger headlines than facts. Just like your high school science teachers told you not to trust Wikipedia as your only source for a lab report...Scientific journalism across a variety of domains can often be misleading and heavily misinterpret real science and scientific conclusions.
Let us analyze a recent media release on the carcinogenicity of red meats and processed meats - one that has resulted in many people panicking over the matter.
A recent report was released by the World Health Organization (WHO) from the International Agency for Research on Cancer. There is also a “Buzzfeed” article with a headline reading “Bacon And Sausages Do Cause Cancer, Says World Health Organisation”. Now it is important to understand what the original WHO article is saying. Let’s break it down.
In this passage, WHO states that eating these processed meats can increase your RISK of cancer, but will not LEAD to cancer. And then there is the Buzzfeed article…
See the issue? Buzzfeed starts with a headline that will grab the attention of the public, but it not necessarily the truth.
We all already know that eating processed foods in high amounts is not good for you. We also know that red meats can provide some nutritional value as well (such as iron!). So why did people suddenly become fearful of eating these foods? Because things like “Buzzfeed” said so.
Let’s look at what makes red meat and processed meats potentially carcinogenic:
- Curing and smoking - allows the formation of carcinogenic compounds
- Cooking at high temperatures (pan-frying, grilling, barbecuing) result in production of suspected carcinogens
Here are also some of the beneficial nutrients that red meats can provide:
- Iron - red meats are one of the highest sources of iron. Iron is needed in our red blood cells to allow for the transport of oxygen to various parts of the body. Thus, anemia is often the result when an individual is not getting sufficient iron intake.
- Vit B12 - you can only get this from animal sources! Red meat are a significant source of this vitamin. A deficiency in this vitamin can potentially lead to certain types of anemia and neurological issues.
Thus, though the recently released WHO article outlines the carcinogenic effects of red meats and processed meats, one must also consider the amount that is eaten. When it comes to meat, like many other foods, the negative side effects highly depend on the amount of intake. For example, eating out occasionally will not make you obese, but doing it everyday may. We can apply the same analogy to red meat: like any food, it has both positive and negative side effects. These negative side effects, particularly carcinogenic effects, occur when there is a high or excessive intake of red meat rather than a balanced diet including red meat in moderation. However, this is not communicated in the media, even though it is clearly outlined in the original article.
This trend of exaggeration when it comes to science applies across a variety of fields, including neuroscience. Scientific myths can be pervasive: even the most careful consumers will occasionally be deceived. One common belief about education, for example, is that students have specific learning styles through which they learn best: some people are visual, some are tactile, some are verbal, etc. Seeing as how thousands of young adults in university are paying approximately $7,000 per year to learn, it would be in our best interest to be sure that there is some evidence behind beliefs which may influence how we study! However, a more thorough review of scientific literature suggests that there is insufficient evidence that learning styles are as simple as Gr. 10 Careers class made them out to be: there has not been much rigorous study with experimental methodology into really demonstrate that catering learning strategies specifically to these simplistic learning styles holds benefit for learners. In fact, some results contradict this conclusion entirely.
Websites like “Buzzfeed” rely on the number of times people click on their article for their income. The trouble is twofold: hyperbole and exaggerating the extent of a conclusion can make an article attractive, but often, there is a technical barrier when reading scientific literature that transcends into our methods of communication. Research aims to discover and describe novel phenomena, but if a non-expert is attempting to understand and write about the main ideas of a journal article, jargon as well as pure complexity of the subject can make it difficult to not oversimplify it.
As a smart consumer of scientific journalism, here are a few simple tips to assessing its validity:
- If a media article cites a journal article or report to which they based their facts and findings on, go to the original article and read it. See which parts are true and the explanations for how they got to their conclusions.
- Do some background research. For processed foods in general, they often have a high amount of nitrate and nitrites, which has been proven for years to have carcinogenic effects. Good to know hey?
- Talk about it! Many people have different perspectives and knowledge about a subject, and you may discover aspects of an article you didn’t even think of!
Every scientific article is the amalgamation of the efforts of a team of academics, likely over many months or years, so communicating its results without overstating or oversimplifying can be challenging--so remember, if it seems too good to be true, it just might be!
Written by: Priya Mistry, Riddhi Shah, and Diana Varyvoda
- BuzzFeed. Bacon And Sausages Do Cause Cancer, Says World Health Organisation [Internet]. 2016 [cited 18 January 2016]. Available from: http://www.buzzfeed.com/tomchivers/bacon-and-sausages-do-cause-cancer-says-the-who?bffbmain&utm_term=.wrBLMDYPY#.lh7M76jxj
- Bouvard V, Loomis D, Guyton K, Grosse Y, Ghissassi F, Benbrahim-Tallaa L et al. Carcinogenicity of consumption of red and processed meat. The Lancet Oncology. 2015;16(16):1599-1600.