Covering viral research: Tips from Harvard’s ‘6 french fries’ guy

 
fries
(Pixabay)
By

January 10, 2019

Eric Rimm, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, wasn’t expecting to become a celebrity/villain overnight.

But you can’t go after french fries and not expect to catch a bit of flak.

In what some might consider an ad tuberosum attack, Rimm called the crispy, defenseless spuds “starch bombs” in an article by New York Times editor Christopher Mele. The piece focused on a study connecting fried potato consumption with increased premature mortality risk.

Rimm wasn’t an author on the study, but his comments got most of the attention in the media onslaught that followed, receiving coverage in outlets including Vox, the Huffington Post, USA Today, the Boston Globe, the New York Post and Fox News. To add fat to the fryer, the coverage was then shared widely on social media, drawing critiques from celebrities like Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi, whose quippy (or, if you prefer, chippy) take garnered over 27,000 retweets.

What really drew scrutiny and ire was Rimm’s suggestion that restaurants might offer an option for meals to come with a side salad and a smaller portion of french fries. Six, to be exact.

Experts quoted in the original New York Times article believe the specificity of the suggestion, combined with the deeply ingrained consumption habits of many Americans, might explain the super-sized response it received.

“The message was good, the reporting was good, but it [the conversation] clearly went from covering science to more about people’s opinions and people’s individual habits,” Rimm said.

Lindsay Moyer, a senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who also provided comment for the story, echoed Rimm’s sentiment.

In a call with Journalist’s Resource, she said that while not all of her comments made it into the article, the gist of what she told Mele was similar. In short: “many restaurants serve fries in oversize portions; a side of fries can have as many calories as the entrée itself… When you’re getting fries, you’re getting a big pile of starch soaked in oil. Nutritionally, we know it’s not a good choice.”

“I think it was this very specific recommendation that hit a nerve, and I think that’s why people reacted to it,” she added.

For his part, Nicola Veronese, the lead author of the study discussed in the New York Times story, said he was surprised by the reaction to his research. In a call with Journalist’s Resource, he suggested the response might have had something to do with the frequency with which Americans consume French fries as a side dish.

Moyer agreed. “I think maybe the strong response reflects how much the food industry has trained Americans from a very young age to think fries are a default side,” she said. “The restaurant industry has really warped expectations, so when you get to hear something that cuts that down, that’s really shocking.”

But what to make of these second-day stories? Rimm described a “falling-off point” in the coverage of his comments, which he said “came when people inappropriately or incorrectly interpreted [them].”

Sounds like a teachable moment for us here at Journalist’s Resource! Here are some of Rimm’s thoughts on his recent virality, with a focus on pointers for journalists on how and how not to cover research that’s already getting a lot of media attention, along with specific tips about interpreting nutrition research.

  1. Know what the story actually is.

Per Rimm: “By the time I got to the second day, people were asking me to send them the study I had published… Obviously people weren’t even reading the New York Times article, because this was not about a recent study I published, it was just my comment on someone else’s study.”

Look beyond the headline of the original story and figure out the basics of it before hopping on the viral bandwagon. “People got sort of misdirected,” Rimm said. “I think it’s because their usual gut reaction is, there’s a headline out there, I have to go to the scientist who published the study and ask them about the study.”

  1. A corollary: Ask yourself, is it worth a story?

After the New York Times article, much of the ensuing coverage focused on Rimm’s comments, and not the science highlighted in the original story. “If they want to do a story on my opinion, that’s fine,” Rimm said. That being said, “I don’t think my opinion’s worth a story,” he added.  “It was just sort of blown out of proportion, and I think it was egged along by Twitter.”

  1. If you must engage, add some value.  

Rimm highlighted a few pieces that stood out from the rest (in a good way) in the media circus.

This stands out from the rest of the incredulous coverage of Rimm’s comments, because though Slate’s Heather Schwedel was also incredulous, she actually tried eating just six fries. “The idea that I don’t have to eat all the fries seems like a very useful thing to keep in mind. They’re so bad for you, but they’re so easy to keep eating,” she writes.

Rimm thought these pieces, published by Vanity Fair and WBUR, respectively, did a good job of contextualizing his comments. For example, in the Vanity Fair piece, Hilary Weaver clarifies: “All Rimm wants, he said, is the option of something smaller, regardless of whether you can limit yourself to six.”

  1. Have a healthy dose of skepticism when evaluating nutrition research.

“The expectation shouldn’t be, oh a new study was published on some aspect of nutrition… that’s going to erase what we know from the last 40 years, because there have now been so many big, well-done studies,” Rimm said. “Have perspective, realize it takes three to four different types of studies to have people realize some aspect of a diet is good.”

Also, Rimm said that with the rise in the number of academic journals, some of which are pay-to-play, meaning authors’ work is accepted for publication conditional on the payment of a fee, there has been an “explosion in mediocre-to-bad science.” His tips for evaluating research include asking an outside expert about the work in question, and focusing on larger studies and papers published in higher-tier journals (like the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, where Veronese’s French fry paper was published, and the New England Journal of Medicine).

  1. Make sure to get the science right.

The response to Mele’s story “clearly illustrates the public’s appetite for coverage of nutrition,” Moyer said. “And it reflects why it’s important to get the science right, because there are going to be a lot of eyeballs on these stories,” she added. Moyer suggested speaking to qualified experts and referencing the advice of health authorities such as the American Heart Association. If you’re mentioning dietary guidelines in a nutrition story, make sure they are backed by evidence, Moyer said. “This is the responsible thing to do if you’re making recommendations that are going to be of interest to a large portion of the public.”

  1. Beware of false balance.

“I’ve been asked this a thousand times, ‘Do you think there’s someone else we could talk to who has a different opinion about this?’ Almost like there’s got to be two sides to every story so let’s give equal weight both sides,” Rimm said. “I think that actually does the most injustice to the science as well as to the scientist, because then you’re essentially saying even though your science agrees with 99 percent of what’s out there, there’s still going to be some flake out there who’s got a crazy idea that’s going to disagree with you, and so if you put it in the same article it’s going to make everybody confused.

“It is true there are papers that come out that disagree with previous papers where both studies were good,” he noted. However, he said those differences can stem from factors such as different study populations and methodologies. Further, he believes the media sometimes plays up conflicting findings beyond what is warranted. “I think that’s doing more of a disservice to the population, because people essentially are giving up because they can’t trust what they’re reading, they don’t know how to interpret it.”

  1. Systematic reviews of the literature aren’t all created equal.

Systematic reviews, which summarize findings from numerous, prior independent studies, can give a mistaken impression that “here’s a new study that’s taken all the published literature and now this is the final answer, because it’s summarized all the previous studies,” Rimm said. Often that’s not the case. “Sometimes they’re good and sometimes they’re bad. And a lot of systematic reviews were done by people who were not in the nutrition field,” he added. “If you’re not knowledgeable enough about the topic and you’re pulling summary estimates from 20 other papers, I guarantee you that when you summarize those 20 estimates, you’re going to be wrong, or even though the number might be right it will be inappropriately interpreted,” he said. “So I think systematic reviews should have less weight than journalists put on them.”

  1. Know how research and researchers are being funded.

“You have every right to ask the scientist who funded this,” Rimm said. “Just because something’s funded by industry doesn’t automatically make it bad science. It makes it more likely the message will benefit the industry.”

 

For more on writing about research, Journalist’s Resource has a tip sheet with suggestions for covering health research responsibly, as well as a summary of a paper that underscores the importance of reading research carefully.

 

We welcome feedback. Please contact us here.