Important Health Stories You May Have Missed

In other words, just as with our diets, we have to start to think about what information we consume and not mindlessly absorb it into our bodies and our brains.
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There's never a shortage of health-related headlines. I don't envy the editors of The Week magazine, who have to sift through countless inane weight-loss stories as well as seemingly important new research to determine just the right fit for the magazine's "Health Scare of the Week" column.

Like those editors, the public has the arduous responsibility of judiciously deciding what news stories to toss aside and what stories to accept as important. Last week's story said red wine will protect your heart, this week it's toxic, and next week your choice of wine or beer make determine whether you are alive or dead by age 55...according to a new study.

While (I hope) most of us have become relatively immune to the barrage of self-contradictory health headlines--Salt both raises and lowers your blood pressure! The proven way to live longer is to be slightly underweight...and anorexia is on the rise! Beware!--they are so incessant that it's veritably impossible not to absorb some of these "facts" as, well, facts, and to change our lifestyles to accommodate those facts.

It's more important than ever not to just consume news, but just as we are told to do in our dietary decisions, to think about what we are consuming as we do it. Call it mindful news reading.

This week, Scientific American published an important story by Charles Seife, that details "How the FDA Manipulates the Media." If you are concerned about your health, and about being aware of the world in which you live, you've got to read this story.

But since the story is longer than the trained short attention spans of most Internet readers, here's a TL:DR version: Many people may be aware of the "gentleman's agreement" (as Seife calls it) between news editors/producers and communications officers/publicists called embargoes. In plain English, an embargo is an unstated agreement that journalists will not report information before a date and time dictated by the news source. For example, if I am selling cookies that have been proven by a new study to extend the life of anyone who eats it by 10 years, I will send out a press release announcing these findings, in the hope of reporters conveying the information to their audiences. The press release will say that the story is embargoed until October 1, 2016. The unstated agreement is that every reporter who receives the press release will have time, then, to write up a story but will not publish the story until the date and time of the embargo--when every other reporter will at the same time publish or air the story. This evens the playing field of news reporters, limiting competition to be "scooped," and at the same time guarantees that the story will make a big splash in the news, appearing in many news outlets at the same time and thus hitting audiences hard with a story that "is everywhere," which then suggests that the story is important.

Many people are aware of this embargo process. And with the advent of the Internet and unconventional publications, the guarantee that they will be honored isn't always guaranteed anymore. The most high-profile example is that of BuzzFeed choosing to report a story before it was "allowed" by an embargo. As Ad Week put it, BuzzFeed "butchered an embargo set by PBS," reporting some information contained in an embargoed announcement before the embargo date. BuzzFeed's argument (which raised a lot of eyebrows as it questioned the legitimacy of the collective agreement that anyone who receives unsolicited information is assumed to agree to someone else's terms about how to report that information) is that it respects agreements when it makes agreements, but that if information comes to it that it didn't ask for, it bears no responsibility to withhold that information from the public.

Embargoes are one thing. It seems I've buried the lede here: the bombshell of the Scientific American story is that the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) maintains a list of chosen reporters and news organizations to which it gives information in advance--but only if those organizations agree to the FDA's terms of reporting that information. Among those terms, the FDA requires that any news organization let the FDA determine who may and may not be interviewed for any related news story. This, obviously, controls the content of the news story and presumably ensures that any news story will reflect favorably on the FDA. NPR, arguably one of the last broadly respected traditional news organizations that listeners assume is more objective than, say, Foxs News or MSNBC, which largely feature commentary rather than objective reporting, is among the outlets discussed in the Scientific American story.

To boil it all down, giving the FDA this level of control over stories effectively makes NPR no more objective and as government-controlled as we are told RT is controlled by the Russian government. To the cynics of Washington, D.C., this story may not be a huge surprise. To casual news consumers, it may be trauma inducing.

The mechanism for the American government's control over news may be a bit different. News organizations are not, as far as we know, required to submit stories for government clearance and revision before reporting them. However, these informal embargo agreements and more overt terms of reporting--e.g., the FDA specifically requiring that reporters not interview certain people or report certain information, and mainstream news outlets agreeing to these terms--yields the same end result.

It is, frankly, difficult to find news stories about the government's influence over the news for one obvious reason: if the government controls news, then the news probably is not going to report that. It may not be surprising that RT publishes stories like "How five American companies control what you think," but then as an American news consumer, you will obviously realize that RT's messaging is controlled by the Russian government and therefore obviously will have an anti-American agenda.

Business Insider won't go so far as to say that the companies that own mainstream media control what we think, but it does say that six corporations control 90 percent of the media--which essentially is saying the same thing.

Meanwhile, beyond the federal government's influence over the news, we learned week before last that private companies have a great deal of control over what we are told is science. Science, we have been taught, is to be trusted, unquestionably, in much the same way as people a few hundred years ago were trained to believe that whatever information the Vatican issued or endorsed was not to be questioned.

To the average reader, this may seem unlikely and even laughable: Science is science, after all. It's vetted by the scientific process, and it's unquestionably true. And yet all of us have experienced the cognitive dissonance of supposedly science-backed stories that tell us one week that eating fat causes heart disease and obesity, the next week that carbohydrates cause inflammation and obesity and therefore heart disease...and so on in perpetuity.

The big story of a couple of weeks ago was that Harvard scientists had been paid by the sugar industry in the 1950s to pre-determine scientific findings that sugar does not affect heart health, and that fat is always to blame for heart disease. This was false science. The Harvard scientists took the money and skewed their research to conclude what the sugar lobby told it to conclude, and since that time it has been accepted as common fact that fat causes heart disease and sugar plays no role in it. The damage is long lasting, not only to generations of people who have determined their dietary choices by this false science, but by the fact that this information has been common knowledge for so long that most of us will never be able to think otherwise. Despite this report, most of us will worry about our waistlines when we eat birthday cake, but we will only worry about our heart health when we eat hamburgers and fried chicken.

Likewise, we get constant conflicting stories about sodium: Common knowledge now, and for the foreseeable future, is that sodium intake raises blood pressure and increases the risk of heart disease. Doctors still tell patients to eliminate sodium from their diets when they are at risk of heart disease. And yet, newer studies have concluded that eating too little salt can pose an even greater risk to heart health than eating too much.

Who's telling the truth? Unfortunately, the truth rarely is black and white. But in science, who is telling the story usually can only be determined with some digging into not only what companies own the media source, but what companies or governmental agency funded the research. We assume that federally funded research is unbiased, unlike a study funded, for example, by the sugar or table salt industries, but that's not always a safe assumption. While we always would prefer to believe otherwise, the reality is that governmental agencies have their own positions on all sorts of issues, and like any individual or corporation, they rarely have the self-control (or even desire) to allow truth to outweigh shaky, constructed "facts" (which become fact not always because they have been proven unquestionably true, but because they have been communicated through enough high-profile sources to be accepted as true).

It's a reality that private companies and government oversight both dictate and monitor what news we consume, and therefore what we believe. This sounds, and can be clandestine, and other times when the driving force is profit, sometimes at least part of the outcome is beneficial. For example, Prior to the development of brain scanning technology, such as functional MRIs and PET scans, drug and alcohol addicts were generally regarded as being morally weak or corrupt individuals, and were treated with disdain and criminalized for their behaviors. With the advent of brain scanning technologies, science learned that some people's brains are predisposed to addiction and as a result experience addiction as a disease of the brain. The pathology of addiction now is understood to be similar to that of a chronic illness such as multiple sclerosis: People become ill, can be treated and experience an improvement of symptoms, but should not be blamed for relapse, which is a normal part of the disease. Scientific developments motivated by profit obviously have been beneficial here.

A bit of a blurrier case is that of mental health parity. Like addicted people, those who had mental illnesses used to be sent away and locked up in mental asylums, even used as "throwaway human" subjects in unholy medical experimentation. While we as a society have collectively agreed that government-administered crimes against humanity such as the Tuskegee experiments occurred only in the past and never will happen again, even NBC News has reported that U.S.-operated experiments on prisoners and mentally ill people (of course, only in the past, never present) were "similar to Nazi experiments." People with mental illnesses simply were not respected as human beings. That attitude really changed in the 1990s when Congress passed the Mental Health Parity Act, requiring that health insurance cover mental health expenses, which then had the effect of changing the overall public perception of mental illness as a health problem rather than a moral failure.

This is all good. However, it is not a coincidence that incredibly well endowed pharmaceutical companies began to lobby Congress--that is, pour extreme amounts of money into raising awareness about mental illness--at the same time. And, at the same time, the public was exposed simultaneously to television commercials advising viewers to "talk to your doctor" about depression and, in particular, about our medication. And then bipolar disorder, ADHD, and so on. And simultaneously, pharmaceutical companies supported the education of television writers and producers about mental illness, and more nuanced, human-oriented, storylines about mentally ill characters became common on TV: It was a win-win-win-win: Members of Congress became heroes for the mentally ill, entertainment creators had a wealth of new dramatic opportunities in exploring mental illness and the commercial sponsorship dollars that come along with them, federally funded researchers had new opportunities to research mental illness, and of course patients now were treated like human beings and had access to tons of medications that may make them feel better...or worse. Or neither.

And of course the biggest winners have been the pharmaceutical companies and the elected officials whose dollars they support. With greater awareness of mental health concerns grows the market of patients who ask their doctors about medications--or who are given (sometimes unnecessary) medications by their doctors without asking.

These relationships aren't always bad. Sometimes they can rightly be called conflicts of interest. Sometimes they can be said to facilitate the research, development, implementation and communication of useful new programs, services and products.

The real danger is that so many people never are told how these things work and never think about it because of course we've all got out own lives to live.

It's vitally important that every person understand where the information they are given by the news comes from and who, sometimes, is given authority over what you are told. We still purportedly have the freedom to make our own choices (unless, for example, you would choose not to consume genetically modified foods--the government, thanks to commercial investments from agricultural technologies companies, has determined that citizens have no right to know what they are eating)--but before we can do that, we have to understand that everything we're told by the news and the government is not always hard fact, even when we are told that it's the product of science.

In other words, just as with our diets, we have to start to think about what information we consume and not mindlessly absorb it into our bodies and our brains.

Further discussion:

Center for Public Integrity: Big Pharma's stranglehold on Washington