Tuesday, June 27, 2006

A sorry excuse for unbiased journalism

AP is running a story today by Marilynn Marchione on new ideas about why people are fat with this lede:

Why are so many people fat? Scientists have come up with some novel excuses, including air conditioning, lack of sleep, fewer smokers, and more sex among obese people, which can produce chubby kids.

I don't care how you feel about fat people, whether you are fat, thin, horizontal or vertical -- this is a sorry excuse if it was supposed to be fair and unbiased journalism. I'd love to know where the general desk editors were on this.

Let's all repeat this again: Words mean something, and your choice of them means a lot. By labeling these "excuses," Marchione has immediately demeaned the researchers and the obese. The world's largest wire service can do better: ideas, explanations, reasons, factors (as used in the hed in my local paper, although a bit stiff) all come to mind.

This unthinking writing is how journlists and journlism get tarred with the brush of bias and insensitivity.

Let's go two grafs down, shall we: “I think it's very creative,” said Dr. Robert Kushner, medical director of the weight management program at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, who had no role in the report. “We are facing an epidemic with no tipping point in the near future. At this point, there are no silly ideas.

Yes, there is another side, and Marchione turns to Marion Nestle, "a nutrition professor at New York University and frequent food industry critic" who calls the ideas "calorie distracters" that make people forget that eating and marketing practices all play into it. I think Nestle (how ironic is that?) is pretty much on target, though I think there are other factors, many of them. But by the nature of word selection in the lede, the AP has taken sides on this one.

Over the years there have been a lot of "silly" ideas in science -- like, say, that the world is round. Reporting must reflect that science is a process of proposing what sometimes seem like silly ideas and then testing and retesting them. We do that no service when, only a few words into a story, we take sides. (This is far different, by the way, than pointing out early on that a new idea goes counter to commonly accepted theories and practice and what its strengths and weaknesses are. That's called context.)

Marchione -- or the general desk editor who handled it -- would have done well to review the basics and rethink the lede a bit. But thought apparently was a bit thin on this one.

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