A surprising number of crises reported in the media tend to have but one source per controversy. Just as regularly, that informed source turns out to be wrong.
When the source has tenure, the controversies may drag on a little longer. Nevertheless, if the informed source is an academic, he keeps his day job even if his information is questionable.
The news media have been reporting on the link between sodas and obesity and the curative effect taxes on the former will have on the latter. In their coverage, though, they are relying heavily on one source.
Since that source is a college professor, news media outlets may want to exercise a bit more skepticism before broadcasting his latest pronouncement. “Two individuals accounted for almost two-thirds (65%) of all citations of named experts,” the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) notes of media coverage of sweetened sodas and obesity. “These individuals were Dr. Kelly Brownell, Director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, who accounted for 40 percent of all named sources; and Dr.Thomas Frieden, Director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, who accounted for 25 percent.”
“Finishing a distant third with six percent of citations was Dr. Barry Popkin, a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina.” The CMPA is based at George Mason University and headed by S. Robert Lichter, who wrote the CMPA analysis.
“No other individual was cited more than twice,” Lichter observes. “This source concentration reflects the widespread publicity given to two scientific papers published in 2009 in the New England Journal of Medicine, which developed a case for using soda taxes as a means of reducing obesity. Brownell was lead author of both; one was co-authored with Frieden, the other with Popkin and several others. Brownell’s Rudd Center was mentioned an additional three times; the only other institution to be mentioned more than twice was the American Heart Association, which was cited nine times.”
“Within the time frame of the media coverage, however, four different studies were released that tried to model the effects of soda taxes. While the Brownell study got such widespread attention, the others received little mention in the media, although all called into question the strength of these effects.”
Moreover, although adding taxes to the mix gives the story an obvious economic component, economists were barely consulted by the media. “Of course, the effect of soda taxes on obesity is a cross-disciplinary issue that draws on principles of economic analysis as well as public health, nutrition, consumer psychology, and other fields,” Lichter argues. “However, economists accounted for only one out of eight named sources (12%) who were cited on this issue.”
Endnote: Brownell’s one .” ratemyprofessors.com review indicates that he is one of a cadre of research professors who devote more time to the first half of that job description than the second.” The Teaching Fellows are EXTREMELY helpful, so it doesn’t matter that he is not,” the reviewer wrote. “He’s not the nicest, most available, most interesting teacher, but the class is important.”
Given the validity of the lessons that Brownell is trying to teach the rest of us, that may not be such a bad deal for the student.
Malcolm A. Kline is the Executive Director of Accuracy in Academia.
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