STATS ARTICLES 2006

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How to Cover a Health Controversy: NYT and Aspartame
February 13, 2006
Trevor Butterworth
A model for reporting on controversial health risks

Editor's Note: The study upon which the NYT story was based was subsequently discredited for a host of methodological flaws by both the European Union's Food Safety Authority and the US Food and Drug Administration. In the intervening years, the author of the study has become embroiled in further controversies for failing to follow international guidelines in toxicity research. We apologize for not checking the study's methodology out thoroughly before recommending the Times story.

Perhaps because it was published in the Sunday business section of the Times, where editors knew it would be read by an interested and expert audience, and where there was plenty of space to really dig into the story and the science, Melanie Warner's The Lowdown on Sweet - A Study Rekindles Debate Over Aspartame stands as a model for how ALL controversies over potential carcinogens should be covered by the media. Warner:

* Laid out the complexities and limitations of the science.

* Sought comment from a broad range of scientists with expertise on the topic.

* Drew attention to some very troubling aspects of the studies conducted by the manufacturer of aspartame.

* Avoided scaremongering or giving a soapbox to activist groups.

While STATS has not examined this controversy, the journalistic framework by which the Times reported aspartame calls out for praise given the woeful attention to accuracy, background, and balance that typically characterize media coverage of these kinds of health risk stories.