Conan the Barbarian —
Last month I was on an episode of Talk of the Nation on NPR and I didn’t even realize it.
I had logged on for one of my rare ventures there to Twitter (my phone sucks, so I don’t get the whole “real time” experience that makes Twitter so fun) and I saw this tweet from TotN:
What’s a story that inspired or eroded your trust in the media? And yes we’re including NPR.
Pretty much all of NPRs coverage of obesity and health has completely disappointed me time and time again. No balance whatsoever.
Now, I commented offhand, not realizing this was for a TotN segment. I used to listen to daytime NPR at work and LOVE Talk of the Nation. I even called into in January 2007 for a show about hiding money from your spouse (I was stashing money for piano lessons… long story), but my current work isn’t compatible with NPR any more, so I never heard it myself and nobody mentioned it to me.
Fast forward to yesterday afternoon (bearing in mind that I have the memory of a randy leopard slug), when I’m researching for the post I was already going to write today. While searching NPR’s site for stories on the economic impact of obesity versus alcohol consumption, I found a link titled “NPR Ombudsman Ponders Journalism’s Big Questions.”
I always enjoy hearing from NPR’s ombudsman, particularly when considering this amusing thought experiment: try to imagine Bill O’Reilly interviewing Fox News’ ombudsman. To aid you in this mental exercise, check out this transcript from The O’Reilly Factor, when NPR’s ever-awesome Terry Gross asked O’Reilly, “Does Fox News have an ombudsman?” and O’Reilly responded, “Yes. We have an ombudsman some place, I think.”).
Plus, in the TotN segment NPR’s new ombudsman, Edward Schumacher-Matos, answers a question about NPR’s coverage of obesity:
CONAN: Here’s a tweet from Atchka(ph) — and I hope I’m pronouncing that correctly — pretty much all of NPR’s coverage of obesity and health has completely disappointed me time and time again. No balance whatsoever. And I’m not sure which side she feels is unbalanced.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SCHUMACHER-MATOS: Yeah, I think there’s the issue: Which side does she feel unbalanced about on obesity versus health? That’s a great issue, and that’s going to be growing issue going forward, as we have a country and the world — not just the United States — becoming increasingly heavy, if not obese.
And how to write about that is — and report about it is a sensitive issue because on the one hand, you have to be sensitive people and you have to recognize social trends about what’s going. But on the other hand, we have to be concerned about people’s health. Certainly, the emphasis has got to be on health and not on beauty.
First and foremost, that’s exactly how a Northeastern elitist would pronounce Atchka (Just kidding, Neil). Off topic, but have you ever noticed how Republicans disdain accusations of -isms (e.g., racism, sexism), yet they love to toss around “elitism” accusation? Funny how that works.
So, before I get to the issue at hand, there’s something else I’d like to address, simply because it’s interesting.
Both Conan and Schumacher-Matos called me a “she,” which is something I’m completely used to due to the fact that my name is Shannon (needless to say, I am frequently invited to Working Women gatherings at my office). My Twitter account does have my name displayed prominently at the top, along with my icon, Dr. Ted Nelson, who coined “Atchka!”
It seems like my gender would be a toss-up, if they glanced at my profile, so I’m curious as to how they arrived at the assignment of my gender. Part of me thinks there is a stereotype that Fat Acceptance advocates are fat women, which could influence perception.
I also find it interesting that they shifted my question away from health and toward beauty and culture, as though I had suggested that NPR wasn’t covering the cultural aspect of fatness in a balanced manner.
Had I thought my offhand tweet was going to be presented to the ombudsman of NPR, I would have expanded upon my criticism. Barring the creation of retro-tweeting (I LOVE On Point, as I can still listen to NPR before 9 a.m. and after 5:30 p.m.), this post will outline exactly the kind of one-sided coverage that the media in general, and NPR in particular, gives to the obesity and health issue.
Now, I do need to give props to NPR for this story from last Monday on the futility of weight loss, a part of NPR’s Living Large series (*COUGHCOUGH*obnoxiousfatpun*COUGHCOUGH*), which totally caught me by surprise.
One good way to illustrate the imbalance in NPR’s coverage is to observe the difference between NPR’s obesity stories and a comparable health issue. In this case, according to popular belief, obesity is a lifestyle choice that kills nearly 5% of the population each year, and costs taxpayers and employers an enormous amount of money.
Did I get that about right?
So, how about we compare obesity, which kills approximately 112,000 Americans and has a 4.6% annual mortality rate (PDF), with alcohol consumption, which kills approximately 85,000 Americans and has a 3.5% annual mortality rate (PDF).
A recent study on the economic costs of alcohol consumption estimates that 79,000 of those deaths are due to binge drinking, while a 2003 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that 26.8% of adults who consume alcohol are binge drinkers. Of the 101 million Americans who consume alcohol, that means that approximately 27 million are binge drinkers who are responsible for 79,000 deaths, or 0.3% of binge drinkers either die or cause the death of others each year.
Compare that with the 33.8% of the population (~105.5 million Americans) who are obese. That means 0.1% of obese people die each year. This suggests that binge drinking is a deadlier “lifestyle choice” than obesity, but how does NPR cover each health issue.
Recently, NPR reported separately on the economic toll to employers for both obesity and alcohol consumption.
That sound pretty dire in light of the current economic troubles affecting businesses. The article is accompanied by the following eye-catching photo:
From cubicle farms to auto factories, accommodating larger and heavier employees has become a fact of life. One in three U.S. adults is obese, and researchers say the impact on business can be boiled down to a number: $1,000 to $6,000 in added cost per year for each obese employee, the figure rising along with a worker’s body mass index.
Studies estimate the total cost of obesity to U.S. employers — including lost productivity — at $73 billion a year. But that figure doesn’t include some of the smaller ways the workplace is adapting.
[Pete Gaffney of Ergogenesis, known for its line of Bodybilt chairs] says the chair supports up to 500 pounds, but “if someone were to weigh 430 pounds, they’d be too large for that seat pan. So we had to move to a Bariatric seat, a very wide seat.”
That chair came on the market two years ago. It’s priced at $1,300 or more and is able to hold up to 600 pounds. To even Gaffney’s surprise, it’s selling; in his region alone he gets two to three requests a month.
DAMN YOU FATTIES AND YOUR ENORMOUS CHAIRS!
Each year, you and your fat asses are costing Corporate America over $73 billion dollars, plus all the “smaller” costs, which, hell, let’s just round up to $100 billion dollars because, let’s face it, nothing you fat people do is “small.”
Well, that just gets my dander up, right there. Makes me want to go out and punch Michael Moore right in his big, fat face.
But what about the costs of alcohol? NPR covered the study I mentioned above on the economic costs of alcohol. So, how did they handle that story? Headline: “CDC: Add $2 Per Drink For US Excessive Drinking”
The article explains:
The toll of excessive drinking works out to about $2 per drink, in terms of medical expenses and other costs to society, according to a new federal research.
Wait a second… excessive drinking costs just $2 extra per drink? That’s like a cover charge. We can handle that. Woooo! Let’s get shitfaced!
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study calculated societal costs from binge and heavy drinking beyond what consumers pay at the bar or liquor store. It’s the first such federal estimate in more than a dozen years.
Wait, the CDC has only looked at the economic cost of excessive drinking once in the past 12 years? The third largest preventable cause of death, and the last estimate is from the last Milennium? That doesn’t sound right. Maybe the overall cost isn’t that bad.
The CDC estimated excessive drinking cost society nearly $224 billion in 2006, the most recent year for which all necessary statistics were available… They also said the new study likely represents an underestimate of the total cost.
So, based on five-year-old data, we’re just now learning that excessive drinkings costs us $224 billion, and probably much more, each year? Has anyone else seen the entire country fly into a tizzy over the Alcoholism Epidemic lately? Nope, me either.
But let’s dig into the actual study, shall we? According the authors, looking
Of the total cost, $161.3 billion (72.2%) came from lost productivity; $24.6 billion (11.0%) came from increased healthcare costs; $21.0 billion (9.4%) came from criminal justice costs; and $16.7 billion (7.5%) came from other effects. [emphasis mine]
What in the fuckingest fuck is happening here? Excessive drinking costs corporations over twice as much as obesity, yet NPR publishes a 277 word segment on excessive drinking, while obesity gets an entire pun-titled series and an article that is nearly 800 words. Am I the only one who finds this inexplicably disproportionate?
Another interesting comparison is how stories on food production and manufacturing are almost always written hand-in-hand with the obesity and health issue, as in this story on whether US farm subsidies lead to obesity, or this story on a report suggestion “Energy Star”-like food labels.
Compare these with NPR’s story on Costco’s $22 million lobbying effort to privatize alcohol sales in Washington State. Not a single mention of health. Or, my personal favorite, the story I heard this weekend paying tribute to the iconic red Solo cup.
The author seems almost gleeful over the college keg parties where anyone who has experienced them can share epic tales of binge drinking and reckless behavior. Any mentions of health concerns? Nope. Not a one.
So, when Conan and Mr. Schumacher-Matos suggested that they had no idea what side NPR’s balance tends to fall on stories of obesity and health, I find that difficult to believe. If there’s a story about obesity on NPR, it’s going to be about how much it costs, how bad it hurts or why those damned fatties can’t get their act together.
Personally, I’m not as interested in getting more balance on the cultural side of fatness (although I do enjoy those stories as well), I am interested in a more robust discussion of the underlying research that supports this nation’s War on Obesity, while completely ignoring the Great American Kegger.
There is no shortage of experts or research that calls the popular claims about obesity and health into question. I can provide contact information for a dozen highly qualified experts if NPR is completely clueless. But NPR’s ombudsman inadvertently nailed my biggest complaint in that same segment where he answered mine.
In response to a caller who complained that NPR frequently misrepresented the results of research by confusing causation and correlation, Mr. Schumacher-Matos said the following:
I couldn’t agree with you more on that causation and correlation. I spent the last four years up at Harvard teaching on migration policy, and spent a lot of time looking at a lot of economic analyses and studies and so forth. And that very issue of causation and correlation is key to anything you have to say about any kind of social science research. And I think most journalists understand the difference, but sometimes they do make that mistake. And I will say if you catch it at NPR, please let me know.
Well, Mr. Schumacher-Matos, I am letting you know right now: NPR frequently conflates causation and correlation on research on obesity and health. In fact, every media outlet in America does.
I just happen hold NPR to a much, much higher standard.