The mainstream news media can’t report a story about wine and cancer correctly no matter how much I lecture them
Dear Mainstream News Media:
I realize this is the 21st century, and that journalism standards aren’t what they were when I was a young reporter. For one thing, the bosses don’t care any more, since caring costs too much money. For another, journalism education isn’t about getting the story right, but about marketing. Because, the money.
Still, your performance during the recent cigarettes, wine, and cancer cyber dust-up left much to be desired. It seemed like every headline and story thundered the news that anyone who drinks wine will die of cancer as surely as a three-pack-a-day smoker, wheezing and hacking to the grave. Or, as this epic screamed: “Put a Cork in It: Drinking a Bottle of Wine Per Week Is as Bad as Smoking 10 Cigarettes
I thought we had covered this ground twice before – during the Centers for Disease Control “wine with dinner is the equivalent of binge drinking” study and the “even one glass of wine is one glass too many” scare. Both times, as I noted, each study had its flaws and solid reporting should do more than parrot the results. Ask questions. Each time, I offered hard-earned wisdom about how to cover these kinds of stories.
Which you apparently ignored. So, one more time – how to parse a wine and cancer study before you write about it:
• Read more than the executive summary. Yes, I know wading through the technical stuff is boring, and that it’s often written to confuse those of us who aren’t scientists. But it is worthwhile, as I noted in the wine with dinner post linked to above.
• Pay attention to the math. I know this is also boring (and math is far from my best subject). But you’d be surprised what you can find, as my Starbucks pumpkin latte post shows.
• Look for the caveats, since every legitimate study will have them. Just like we did in the red wine study.
• Look for the biases, because too many studies have biases these days. The cigarettes, wine, and cancer report is British, part of a barrage of studies that have come out of that country over the past several years in the wake of Britain’s binge drinking crisis. So what else would you expect the study to find?
Because, as one reporter discovered at the end of an otherwise “We’re all going to die!” piece:
“The use of cigarette smoking as a measure of risk is clever, but somewhat misleading.” That’s the opinion of Larry Norton, MD, the deputy physician-in-chief for breast cancer programs at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. “Association is not causation … On the other hand, we know for sure that smoking actually causes lung and other serious cancers. So putting it all together, the equating of tobacco with alcohol has some real flaws.”
See what I mean?
Your pal in better journalism,
The Wine Curmudgeon