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Journalism and the proliferation of nutribabble - transcript

Aileen: Hello and welcome to the safefood podcast.

I'm Dr. Aileen McGloin, Director of Marketing and Communications at safefood. And this is a special edition of the Nutrition Podcast series, where we're bringing you a recording from a symposium hosted by safefood at the 2019 Federation of European Nutrition Societies conference in Dublin.

The symposium asked, "What advice does the public believe?" And outlined challenges for researchers, policy makers and practitioners. Each one of the four contributors is available to listen to, individually. And there's also a separate podcast where all speakers are featured in full.

This is RTE journalist, Philip Boucher-Hayes who talks to the conference about the proliferation of nutribabble and the need for professionals to go on air and counteract misinformation in language that anyone can understand.

Philip: Hello, everybody, how are you?

I'm glad that Robert reminded me to make a declaration of conflict of interest, right at the very start. Because I do have a conflict of interest in being here. I am a journalist, I have no discernible talent for doing anything else, whatsoever. I have 20 years left on my mortgage. So, unfortunately I'm going to have to stay being a journalist.

And I'm here to give journalism a bit of a kicking, today, or journalism and media. Because we in media, do have to put our hands up to being primarily, frankly, responsible for the incredibly screwed-up relationship that an awful lot of people have with food. The proliferation, I got it in one, of nutribabble, the amount, the enormous, the vast amount of fake food news, that is out there.

So, I'm going to be brief now because I think the most constructive thing for all of you, hopefully, is going to be throwing questions to us on the panel, later on. But let me address two things here and now.

One is, how, actually sorry, who am I talking to here, today? Hands up, the dietitians, the clinicians. Okay, about 20% of you. Hands up, the academics and the researchers. Okay, hands up, those who are here from various companies, plugging something or another. Okay, all right. And are there others? Am I leaving anybody out? Okay.

Let me just give you a little bit of my personal experience which kind of sets the scene for how the media landscape works. About 12 years ago, I wrote a book with my wife, primarily on food and farming but because it was also about supermarkets, we strayed into the area of nutrition and dietetics. And it wasn't very long before I realised that I had absolutely no qualifications for doing this, whatsoever.

But it was also not very long before I realised that, that didn't matter because nobody else writing in this space had absolutely any qualifications to do so, whatsoever. And it struck me from very early on, that really the only responsible thing to do in this space, the only responsible advice that you should be offering, on radio, in print or on television, is the rather boring message, to, for most of you, just eat a little bit less, exercise a little bit more. But nobody ever sold books with this message or made interesting television programmes because media loves novelty. And that's something we're going to return in a moment.

But when we were writing this book, it was, I cannot tell you how easy it was to get a book deal. I thought that it was going to be problematic. But no, because these particular spaces, one that publishers have identified as being quite lucrative to them, they said, "Come on board, here you go, very generous advance deal here for you and it doesn't really matter to us what you say at all, just so long as you make it interesting, controversial and it gets a little bit of attention."

I thought, okay, what about being right? "Oh, yeah, that too, of course, of course." But it was obviously, it was very much second place. Because there was no fact checking of this book, whatsoever. There was really barely any proofreading of it. It could have said absolutely anything and gone out into this space. It only sold 6,000 copies, it didn't do that well, precisely because it didn't say anything particularly novel in this area. And we were in a space where you're competing with Rosanna Davison. For those of you not from Ireland, she's a former Miss World who has a qualification, in inverted commas, as a naturopath and has cured her husband's rheumatoid arthritis with a diet that I can't remember.

But, the point is, this is what you're competing with. And I don't have an awful lot of Rosanna Davison's assets, from going on television. So, from that we went into the TV programme-making space with the same message. Trying to basically say, "Look folks, we're not going to do what's good food, what's bad food, we're just going to tell you what is in your food. How to interrogate your food. And how, for you to make decisions hopefully with the assistance or the advice of a dietitian on what it is that'll be the best thing for you to eat."

And it was really quite shocking to me that when the producers of the programme were drawing up various contributors, they came to me with the name of the person that they wanted to use as the kind of nutritional advisor to the program. And I got a bad whiff off this person, straight away. They did not strike me as the kind of person who knew their onions at all. And I was right. And I thought I was putting my foot down but I didn't get anywhere. The executive producer didn't care, the commissioning editor didn't care, the other producers didn't care. This person was a good media person, they were a good communicator.

Well, I went off and I did more research and I found the number of instances that they had appeared on various television couches with confused dietetics messages and ultimately pushing some kind of a supplement product. Still, it didn't matter. People thought that I was just being fussy about this. And it wasn't until ultimately, I kinda threatened to throw all of the toys out of the pram and say, no, this project is just not going ahead, I am stepping back from it and taking the name of the product with me, that people sort of said, "Oh, okay, all right, we'll give in to him."

So, my apologies to all the dietitians in the room, saying this to you now, because Louise Randall and INDI have done some great work raising the profile of what it is that you do and the advisability of consulting a dietitian, before making important decisions about what you eat, but that message hasn't penetrated into the media world.

Let me tell you how simple it is and hopefully there aren't any rogues in the room who are going to take advantage of this advice and go and try and promote a caper based diet. But if you wanted to, for argument sake, promote a caper based diet and suggest that it would cure your rheumatoid arthritis, it is really as simple as coming up with a press release that says as much on the top, offers the hard-pressed researcher, five or six suggested questions and what the anticipated replies to those questions would be from you or from your gorgeous, bikini-clad model whose rheumatoid arthritis was cured by capers. And that is really all that it takes. It's not much more complicated than that.

I know that, that's distressing and hard to believe. But it's the case. Because if you think about what a TV or a radio production team is, it's never more than four or five people. They will invariably, on the same day be doing an item on Brexit, because well, every program has to have an item on Brexit at the moment, doesn't it? There'll be somebody on, talking about their Munchausen's by proxy and there'll be somebody else that'll want to talk about gardening.

And researchers and producers, like me, are generalists. We are not specialists. There are very few of us who have a science background. There's very few of us who, even as Robert was pointing out earlier on, know how to interrogate the research, at all. And this is why an awful lot of rubbish manages to find its way onto the sofas of the TV programmes or into the pages, the features pages of magazines and newspapers because there is very little due diligence, there is very little interrogation.

It's ironic that the advertisements on television, radio and in print are far more finely and closely and rigorously regulated than any of the programs on either side of them. There, it's really down to the discretion of the producers and the knowledge of the presenters, as to how much interrogation of the dietary claims that are being made by a guest, are going to receive.

And very often, I heard a presenter, not that long ago, saying how she never put sugar on any of her food, only ever used honey because that was natural and that was all right. And you think, "Oh God, oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, "we really do have a long way to go."

So, if that is the problem, how do we go about solving the problem? Or how do the people in this room go about solving the problem? I know what media has to do to clean up its house and its act, but let's leave that aside for the moment. What can you, as professionals in this space, do? I think the first thing that you have to do, and there are many dietitians actually who are quite good at this, and a good number of researchers as well, you have to occupy the same space that the charlatans and the fraudsters are occupying. You have to get over your tall poppy syndrome anxieties and go out and say, here's my research, here's what I've been doing, here's why that's bollocks, I'm gonna tell you why that's bollocks, in no uncertain terms.

Use the same language as those in social media are using as well. Don't talk, unfortunately, sorry, like a researcher, like an academic. Lose all of your caveats and your qualifications. Media, when you enter this space, when you become a professional communicator, as you all need to, I believe, you have to distill and you have to distill some more and then you have to take your message and you have to distill again.

I'm making a documentary on climate crisis at the moment. One section of it, forestry, my first pass at it, I wrote a seven page, closely typed document on all the various issues. I whittled that down on the second pass to two and a half pages. And so on and so on until you ended up with a two and a half minute segment in a program which had no more that 350 words from me, in terms of voice over. You distill and distill and distill and you finally hone your message until it is readily and easily comprehensible by laypeople.

'Cause you're not entering this space to talk to other academics and your peers, you're entering this space to combat the kind of nonsense that is out there. To that end, one of the things that I have really admired and appreciated, is the universities, the academic institutions that make a job of work of saying, "We are going to communicate what our research is."

I had a conversation, not that long ago, with an academic who I was giving out to, in saying, "What is the point in all of your research if you don't tell anybody in the outside world about it? It is frankly the metaphorical tree falling in the figurative Chinese forest, unnoticed and unobserved by the outside world."

And his attitude was, "It's ridiculous, you're telling me that I have to do the work and then I have to tell people about the work?"

Yes, you do have to tell people about what it is that you're doing.

One of my favorite innovations in this area, in recent years, has been the conversation which has opened me up to all sorts of different areas of research that I would never have come across in the ordinary course of events and certainly not reading in any of our newspapers where science communication is not necessarily the best.

So, the other thing that you have to do, I'm going to move on and shut up now, the other thing that you have to do and this is perhaps the most important, is when the radio program makes that phone call or the TV program says, "Will you come on?" You have to answer the call. All too often we're bashing the phones, again and again and again to find that one person who is prepared to come out and say their piece.

On the occasion that I finally managed to get rid of the charlatan nutritional advisor, from that programme, and then go and find somebody that I wanted to get, I had to make 17 bloody phone calls, to get somebody who finally said, "Yeah, okay, "I'll put my hand up and I'll do that." That's not good enough anymore. If you are going to join us in the trenches and we need reinforcements really badly, in combating fake news and foods, in the food space and nutribabble, you have to please answer that call when it comes.

Thanks very much.

Aileen: That was RTE journalist, Philip Boucher-Hayes, speaking at a FENS symposium at the Convention Center in Dublin.

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Until the next time, goodbye.

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