STATS ARTICLES 2006

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In Praise of the New York Times
July 3, 2006
Trevor Butterworth
The New York Times has come in for a lot of criticism from STATS, but now, in two stories on breast-feeding and high fructose corn syrup, we come to praise rather than blame

The first tribute goes to the editorial page for returning to the fractious issues of breast-feeding after the paper’s science section ignited a firestorm of controversy for the way it reported a new campaign to get women to breast-feed by equating not breast-feeding with smoking while pregnant.

As we pointed out, this was an over-reach – and the Times was at fault for not being a little more critical of the arguments marshaled by the American Association of Paediatrics (AAP) in support of such dire warnings.

The Times, in our view, is still tilting towards overstatment when it comes to the benefits of breast-feeding, but it was heartening to see the editorial page embrace a more commonsensical position:

“ …the decision on whether to breast-feed is one of dozens that parents make — such as whether their children will be reared in city or country and whether, when they become adolescents, they will be allowed to drive. The government's job is to discourage parents from making choices that affect other children — like a refusal to be inoculated for serious diseases — and to enforce laws that protect youngsters from clear and present dangers, like unbuckled car seat belts.

The equation might change if it became clear that breast-feeding could protect babies from serious illnesses later in life. The American Academy of Pediatrics concluded last year that "some studies" suggest adults and older children who were breast-fed are less apt to contract diabetes, lymphoma, leukemia, obesity, high cholesterol and asthma. But other studies find no such protective impact.

For right now, the science comes down hard on behalf of educating women about the clear advantages of breast-feeding. But that is no license to imply that mothers who cannot breast-feed or choose not to are putting their babies in grave danger. Experts on both sides agree that formulas are safe and nutritious. Millions of Americans have thrived on them and are doing quite nicely as far as we can see.”

Amen.

The second tribute goes to business reporter Melanie Warner, who is doing an astonishingly brilliant job of covering the nexus between science, health and business from the pages of the Times Sunday Business Section. Her latest article, A Sweetener with a Bad Rap is a superbly reported analysis of whether high fructose corn syrup should be seen as a culprit for the increasing rates of obesity in America. The problem isn’t just that there seems to be a remarkable paucity of hard evidence for the idea that there’s something specific to fructose that’s more fattening than regular sugar,

“Scientists say part of the confusion about the ingredient's role in the nutrition debate stems from a basic misunderstanding: the idea that high-fructose corn syrup is actually high in fructose.”

Unlike some rivals who map similar terrain, Warner is not in thrall to the activists on the health and business beat, and she doesn’t let their soapbox agendas dictate the narrative pitch. This may seem like an obvious journalistic standard to adhere to, but many reporters have a curious phobia about including independent scientists and experts in their coverage of health risks (The Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal on phthalates in cosmetics for example) – or giving industry sources or government regulators a fair chance to make their respective cases (most recent coverage of the supposed risks from Teflon – and the Times’ mammoth yet staggeringly incomplete investigation of the risks of accidental addiction from OxyContin).

Warner avoids the quick scare-mongering thrill for genuine analysis – and the results make for compelling reading. (We were particularly impressed by her reporting on the risks from aspartame back in February). This makes her an appointment reporter: someone who can be relied on to see shades of gray when the data is murky and yet call out black and white when the data is clear.