Dear journalists and editors, (again)

By Grant Jacobs 14/11/2012 14

Some time ago I wrote to you over your advocating unsound treatments in reporting fund-raising efforts.

I now find myself writing again on much the same issue, this time regards your advocating unsound services. The issues are so similar I find myself drawing on my earlier words.

Please, when you decide to ‘advocate’ for a service, check that it is sound.

Articles about services offering hope of treating illness no doubt sell copy, but with that comes responsibility.

These articles, with their details of how to contact the service provider at the bottom, effectively advocate the service to the reader.

Sure, you could argue whether the treatment is sound is for the reader to judge before giving them their money – but wouldn’t that be newspapers shirking their moral responsibilities?

If you put down details of the service in the article you’re effectively putting your weight behind it.

Editors, like most people, will be aware that articles in the press carry some weight of creditability, rightly or wrongly. There will be an expectation among many that the media has checked ‘the facts’.[1]

It seems to me either that this checking should done, and done properly, or the advocacy dropped.

My brief missive here follows from an article espousing the services of an iridologist published yesterday in the New Zealand Herald that was brought to my attention by my colleagues.[2]

Even the briefest of background research would have revealed that iridology is nonsense. Quaint, well-meaning nonsense, perhaps, but nonsense nevertheless.

That article is written by  Stephen Barrett, M.D.[3] His bottom line? –

Iridology makes no anatomic or physiologic sense. It is not merely worthless. Incorrect diagnoses can unnecessarily frighten people, cause them to waste money seeking medical care for nonexistent conditions, or steer them away from necessary medical care when a real problem is overlooked.

Similarly, a survey of the medical literature finds no support for iridology.

I would later pen a letter to the editor concerned, but past experience suggests this would not be acknowledged , replied to or published.

My encouragement is for you not to write or publish uncritical advertorial material.

Let me close on that note. There is a place for critical analysis. Done sympathetically and thoroughly, it benefits everyone.[4] It’s a little harder to do, I guess. The writer has to put some effort into looking into the subject they are writing about. The editor has to not be tempted to use lazy copy. Quality media should draw a line on material that is inaccurate and encourage poor practice.

Let me finally paraphrase a quote offered in my earlier letter, some words that echo my thoughts:

’Unfortunately, so is the credulous variety of reporting that doesn’t actually look into [X]’s treatment and the lack of evidence for it. […] That credulity is understandable in the parents of a child [a serious illness]. It’s not so understandable in a reporter’


I will add this is an issue has previously bothered me from other coverage I’ve seen in the New Zealand media. It’s not the first time and I’m sure it won’t be the last, unfortunately.

1. People like myself and my colleagues who have seen media repeatedly mangle science and medicine coverage will know the reality is less favourable…

2. Thanks to Aimee Whitcroft for the original heads-up.

3. Barrett’s website also contains a longer article by a former iridologist that is worth reading.

4. It’s the, sometimes personalised, attacks or ‘shouting down’ that hurts.

Other articles on Code for life:

Iridologist’s treatment of cancer criticised by Health and Disability Commissioner

Homeopathy in NZ pharmacies revisited: Wartoff and more

Bad science: baking soda, fungi, cancer, nuclear fallout, rosacea

Those behind charter schools are to be exempt from public scrutiny – ?

A vaccine discussion forum

14 Responses to “Dear journalists and editors, (again)”

    • Thanks for the pointer to the feedback form, Mark. Now that you’ve had your first comment approved, you should be able to comment at will – welcome to Code for Life! (Excuse the delayed moderation – some mug cut a cable in a neighbouring street leaving me without internet for most of the day…)

  • Well said Grant. Interesting you called the Herald article an advertorial. It certainly read like that with the addition of contact details and costs of a consultation appended. I thought that media were meant to label articles as “advertorials”? Journalist integrity is questionable for those advertorials (perhaps they are part of a PR firm?), but if it was not a paid advertorial then their integrity is shot to pieces – not just on the pseudo-science, but on including contact details etc. Media Watch (Radio NZ) had something to say about this a week or two back as they thought that it was symptomatic of journalists failing to critique.

    • I did call it advertorial, only ever so slightly tongue-in-cheek. While it’s unlikely to be a paid advertisement, it’s pretty routine for business to try offer “their story” to journalists and newspapers in the hope of getting some free coverage. I’d be quite happy to do that for my own business, for that matter, and it’s probably no different for scientists liking media coverage of their work and the universities encouraging coverage of it through their press offices. What is different, as you (and Media Watch) point out, is the like of critical judgement on the part of the journalist and the editor.

      I’ve deliberately focused on the uncritical advocacy concern as this is something I’ve raised before and partly as I suspect this raises legal issues for the editors.

      As I hinted, my article is an edited version of the earlier letter with the subject replaced with the new example. Intentionally, of course. I wanted to make the point that this is basically the same issue.

      In the previous example an article wrote about a family seeking funds for cancer treatment – some here may be aware of the issues of the Burzynski Clinic and their endless paid-for-by-the-patient “trials”. This may be a harsher case than iridology, which many might see as rather harmless nonsense, but we’ve also seen a terrible case of an iridologist’s of inappropriate actions here in New Zealand.

  • There’s a letter in today’s HOS pointing out that iridology is not science-based. Well done to that person!

  • Mythbuster,

    Good to hear. Can’t see it on-line – no surprise there, but it would open up discussion if they allowed comments in reply.

    Shame to see the PharmacyToday tweeted: “Iridology: What the eyes reveal – Health & Wellbeing – NZ Herald News via @nzherald”

    PharmacyToday seem to have also put this on their ‘That’s Interesting’ page, judging by searching their website (the actual page is only for registered readers).

    I’ve tweeted to them, suggesting that they “add to the That’s Interesting page a statement clarifying iridology is unsound lest you advocate unsound practice”.

  • Thanks Grant :)

    Does anyone know who’s letter was published in the Herald on Sunday? I don’t have access to it and I’d be interested to know who wrote in.

    I noticed that tweet from PharmacyToday as well, and replied with this:
    “@PharmacyToday Do you really think it’s appropriate to share @nzherald’s article on #iridology? Are you aware that iridology does not work?”

    I would have liked to say “does not seem to work” instead, but Twitter’s character limit makes that sort of qualification difficult to include.

  • The letter is from Jesse Allpress, Hillsborough. There was a note to say it was abridged. If I have time after mother-duties are over tonight, I’ll type it up and post it!

  • Mythbuster – Just a thought: If it’s easier for you to scan it or take a picture of it, you can send it to me and I’ll add it as an Appendix to the article.

  • I did call it advertorial, only ever so slightly tongue-in-cheek.
    Google informs me that Donna McIntyre’s contributions to the NZ Herald consist of paid-for life-style fluff — holidays in Waiheke, holidays in Bali… “Advertorial” is too polite.

  • hdb,

    Ah, yes, I generally err on the polite side :-)

    If she receives ‘contributions’ towards her writing, she‘s obliged to disclose it, eh? That sort of stuff is a well-known travel-writer’s gig, but the contributions really have to be disclosed clearly. Out of curiosity, did the holiday in Waiheke piece coincide with writing about the iridologist who lives there?

  • If she receives ‘contributions’ towards her writing, she‘s obliged to disclose it, eh?

    She discloses that she is a paid shill for the subject of the advertisement, sometimes
    but not always.

    No disclosure for her real-estate pieces.

    Perhaps real-estate and travel journalism are sufficiently well known as havens for writers-for-hire that disclosures are not necessary.

    • hdb,

      “Perhaps real-estate and travel journalism are sufficiently well known as havens for writers-for-hire that disclosures are not necessary.”

      As I understand it writers should always disclose any contributions towards their articles. They’re conflicts of interest, after all. They might not be cash, but freebies – still something received.

      I suspect she didn’t get any contribution (in-kind) for the real-estate piece, but it reads too much like a slap-up PR piece for my tastes – more tolerable in a trade journal than a newspaper, perhaps, lacking any of the critique, thought, etc., I like to see from a journalist.

      The Waiheke fishing trip could be freebie (in which case that ought to have been declared in my opinion).

      Perhaps space is more of an issue in a newspaper compared to, say, a weekly magazine, but I still much prefer to see the disclosures or clarifications (I have occasionally seen a footnote explaining if the author paid their own way if there might be doubt).

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