Posted by: zachputnam | October 31, 2015

Spreadable Controversy

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Click the image to read Wired’s coverage of this story.

In Chapter 5, the authors of Spreadable Media identify some elements that can make something more easily spreadable. Health news stories, like this week’s “Bacon Causes Cancer” fiasco seem especially spreadable, and I’ve often wondered why. No matter how many times they contradict each other (where are we on butter now?), it seems people are always eager to read about the latest medical “breakthrough.”

In case you missed it, the WHO classified bacon as a “class one carcinogen,” along with tobacco and asbestos. Looking down the authors’ list of spreadable qualities, I think “timely controversy” is the closest match (p 213). As I mentioned, these medical news stories often contradict conventional wisdom or something the “experts” have told us before. But were we ever told that bacon is good for us? No, I think the controversy here is about what this classification means and how it should be reported.

My favorite podcast, On the Media, analyzed this story here and Ivan Oransky of Retraction Watch pointed out that “a lot of public health organizations haven’t figured out how to communicate effectively to the public.” By not providing any context or comparison, people aren’t sure what to make of it, and journalists have a tendency to make the worst of it.

Do you think some journalists were responsible for creating this spreadable controversy? Or is the onus on the WHO to do a better job explaining the news to begin with?

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