Media Bites Manliness Marketing

October 20, 2011

By Cindy Merrick

While you were busy wringing your hands over our nation’s debt crisis this summer, Combos (the Mars, Inc. brand responsible for figuring out how to shape pretzels around a glob of process cheese) was putting finishing touches on a far more sweeping indicator of our nation’s depravity: its annual “manliness survey.”

For the third year in a row, Combos has delivered its annual manliness rankings of America’s 50 most populous metropolitan areas. Rather than keeping this gold mine of market research to themselves, Combos has gifted it to us all, along with the opaque explanation: “The Combos brand understands that Americans take great pride in their hometowns. This spurred the idea for the first formal study on the manliest cities in America.” Actually, it’s probably good to be circumspect here. Once you’re caught saying “manliness is good,” you’re only one low-brow step away from “girliness isn’t good,” and by then you’re thinking what I’m thinking: what about Rollergirls?

In the survey, weighed along with other manly characteristics like a city’s proximity to NASCAR racetracks and rodeos, and its number of western/cowboy apparel stores, were “salty snacks sales” (say that with a mouth full of cheesy pretzels). So since salty snacks are naturally manly, Combos is reporting to us where they feel the love. It is in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which ranked number one in the salty snacks sales category.

And in case you think that vapid, gender-confused marketing disguised as a survey like this would be ignored by serious media outlets, The Wall Street Journal’s Market Watch picked up PR Newswire’s coverage of the “story,” good-naturedly encouraging Nashville (the #1 rated city overall in manliness) to “flex those muscles!” Other cities commented, lamented, and navel-gazed, on their own rankings.

The echo of this ploy resonates across the digisphere, but it’s the oldest ploy in the book. All the cool people are eating Combos in their manly cities at rodeos, wearing cowboy hats! How unmanly are you, sitting there in your sushi place, on break from the job for which the wearing of flannel implies non-advancement?

So go ahead and be offended on behalf of your gender, or take this way too seriously and say: shame on the media for unabashedly covering this corporate advertising “story.”


Sleep off fat and other tall tales from TV health reporting

November 18, 2009

NPR’s On the Media recently had a very interesting discussion about the dismal state of television’s health and science reporting.  Here’s a look at some of the examples.

  1. NBC Today show clip on losing weight while you sleep.

In this segment, Meredith Viera says 63 percent of Americans do not get enough sleep, which just happens to coincide with the percentage of adults who are overweight or obese. Perhaps more sleep will make you slimmer, reasons Today, which then turns to the well-known science journal, Glamour, to test this incredible hypothesis on a sample of seven women. As Health News Review Editor and Health Journalism Professor Gary Schwitzer says, “it’s just sad, and… insulting to women viewers.”

2. CBS Early Show segment on whether blue food dye can prevent paralysis.

When researchers from the University of Rochester Medical Center injected rats suffering from spinal cord injuries with the compound Brilliant Blue G (BBG), used in M&Ms and Gatorade, they were able to walk again with a limp (the rats also temporarily turned blue). However, CBS waits to tell viewers that the study was on rats until two minutes into the three minute segment. Schwitzer calls this “unforgivable” and says it gives viewers a sense of false hope.

Schwitzer, who leads a project to evaluate the accuracy of health news in the media has decided his team will no longer rate every item of medical news on TV because of the ongoing relentless espousal of dismal scientific standards.


Britannica versus Wikipedia

June 16, 2009

In our article The Internet – a sober corrective to unruly journalists, Andrew Lih, author of the “Wikipedia Revolution: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World’s Greatest Encyclopedia,” noted how a survey finding showing that scientists had much more faith in the accuracy of Wikipedia than the mainstream media reminded him of a Nature study in 2005 which “found that on average, Britannica had 3 errors per article, and Wikipedia had 4 errors.”

Not so fast, responds the Encyclopedia Britannica”s Tom Panelas, who points us towards a brace of articles refuting this study (which was not peer-reviewed), including Britannica’s point-by-point refutation, and Nicholas Carr’s criticism

“If you were to state the conclusion of the Nature survey accurately, then, the most you could say is something like this: ‘If you only look at scientific topics, if you ignore the structure and clarity of the writing, and if you treat all inaccuracies as equivalent, then you would still find that Wikipedia has about 32% more errors and omissions than Encyclopedia Britannica.’ That’s hardly a ringing endorsement.”

(Carr later joined Britannica’s editorial board). The article’s focus was on the significance of scientists choosing new media entities that reflected consensus within expert communities rather than old media entities driven by “news.” In that respect, both WebMD and Wikipedia represent a return to a more 19th century model of knowledge, but by different paths: WebMD relies on expert guidance before publication, Wikipedia (at least in theory) on expert guidance or intervention after publication. The Encyclopedia Britannica is in this respect, the ultimate old media and new media resource.


Scare-tistics and swine-fluence

May 4, 2009

Throughout the weekend, and now into Monday, CNN seems to have been turned into the influenza network, as “breaking” headlines highlighted soaring, leaping, and rising numbers of people with swine flu. But did banner breaking news headlines really tell us anything meaningful? A sixty five percent increase in cases sounds scary, but not when it refers to going from 331 to a grand total of 615 people across 15 countries. Using percentages like this creates a heightened sense of alarm, which – in tandem with the tens of thousands of news stories covering the story from every conceivable doomsday scenario – is driving people to seek out medical attention for every sniffle. Here’s a sampling of flu inflation from CNN:

Confirmed cases of H1N1 virus approach 1,000 – updated 4:12 a.m. EDT, Mon May 4, 2009
“The World Health Organization cautioned that the swine flu outbreak could gain momentum in the months ahead, despite claims by the health secretary of Mexico — the epicenter of the outbreak — that the virus “is in its declining phase.”

Confirmed cases of H1N1 virus approach 900updated 5:59 p.m. EDT, Sun May 3, 2009
“The World Health Organization cautioned that the swine flu outbreak could gain momentum in the months ahead, despite claims by the health secretary of Mexico — the epicenter of the outbreak — that the virus “is in its declining phase. “The number of confimed cases of the H1N1 virus continue to multiply. The outbreak is only about 10 days old, and even if the illness is declining, it could return, said Gregory Hartl, the WHO spokesman for epidemic and pandemic diseases, at a briefing Sunday.”

Swine flu count tops 800 – Posted: 02:09 PM ET, May 3rd, 2009
‘The number of known swine flu cases worldwide topped 800 on Sunday, with another 66 cases confirmed in the United States, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.

CNN Saturday morning news, aired May 2, 2009 – 06:00   ET
“Overnight, there is a big jump in the number of swine-flu cases worldwide. The World Health Organization reports 615 people infected in 15 countries. That is a 67 percent increase from the number reported just yesterday.”

Number of swine flu cases soars – CNN Wire, Saturday, May 2, 2009, Posted: 05:33 AM ET
“Cases of people infected with the H1N1 virus soared Saturday with the World Health Organization reporting 615 people in 15 countries infected with the virus commonly known as swine flu.”

Confirmed number of global swine flu cases: 367 and counting – updated 10:09 p.m. EDT, Fri May 1, 2009
The number of confirmed swine flu cases across the globe kept rising Friday, but some signs of hope emerged in the battle against the worldwide outbreak.

Worldwide swine flu cases continue to rise – updated 11:45 a.m. EDT, Fri May 1, 2009
“The number of confirmed cases of the H1N1 virus has jumped nearly 30 percent with 331 people being infected so far, the World Health Organization said Friday.”

Confirmed swine flu cases leap – updated 10:44 p.m. EDT, Thu April 30, 2009
“Confirmed cases of swine flu worldwide increased to 257 on Thursday, up significantly from the previous day’s total of 147, the World Health Organization reported.”

Worldwide swine flu cases continue to rise – updated 9:11 a.m. EDT, Thu April 30, 2009
“The number of confirmed swine flu cases worldwide rose to 154, with six additional cases reported in Spain, the World Health Organization said Thursday. Until now, the country had four confirmed cases.”

(Blessedly, CNN did not report this as a 250 percent increase)

This doesn’t include stories about wild boars being killed, Dr Sanjay Gupta advising people to rub elbows instead of kissing or shaking hands, interviews with “survivors” of the 1918 flu pandemic, and a story about how a farmer might have given flu to his pigs in Canada. CNN did wonder whether it was overdoing it and decided to investigate the issue by turning to Ron Paul for insight:

“There is too much hysteria in the country and so far, there hasn’t been that great a danger,” said Congressman Ron Paul, a Republican from Texas. “It’s overblown, grossly so.”

The online article failed to note that Paul was a trained doctor.  Dr. Mark Bell, principal of Emergent Medical Associates, which operates 18 emergency departments in Southern California was also deeply critical:

“Right now, people think if they have a cough or a cold, they’re going to die. That’s a scary, frightening place to be in. I wish that this hysteria had not occurred and that we had tempered a little bit of our opinions and thoughts and fears in the media.”

But there is hope: As the absence of virulent death becomes ever-more obvious in the data, the media, says Gawker, are growing bored with being swine hounds.


Swine-hounds: Porking the panic

May 1, 2009

With the number of news stories about swine flu pushing 50,000 in the past week, some journalists are beginning to wonder whether the press is suffering from swine fever. As the Los Angeles Times  James Rainey puts it:

Desperate to fill to the top of the hour and armed with little clarity – no one can say for certain how prolonged or deadly this flu episode will be – some newsies can’t stop spinning. And conjuring a frightening reality that isn’t quite real.

Fox News warned the virus was spreading from coast to coast; CNN asked whether people should stop shaking hands and hugging; meanwhile the LAT reported that the consensus among experts was that H1N1 wasn’t “shaping up to be as fatal as the strains that caused some previous pandemics.”

The absence of pre-existing immunity to a new variation of the flu virus is responsible for driving the expert community to respond to the potential of a threat, as MedPage Today reports – and the worldwide public health response has been reassuringly swift, showing how the lessons from dealing with the threat of the SARS pandemic in 2003 have been put to good effect. It took months to identify SARS as a new disease; it took researchers less than a week to determine that there was a new strain of flu. As Richard E. Besser, M.D., CDC’s acting director tells MedPage Today,

The fact that we have been exercising several times a year for a pandemic has meant that when it occurred, we didn’t have to sit down and say ‘Let’s talk about the flu. Here’s the things you need to look out for with flu.’

But the swiftness of the response, something that should reassure the public, has actually become a source of panic: An effective precautionary public health response requires acting on limited information, but that limited information simultaneously becomes the source of speculation in the press, spurred to report the story with almost as much alacrity as the health authorities. Sensible precaution in public health becomes sensational panic in the press.

Unfortunately, as yet, there is no way of knowing the virulence or attack rate of the virus. But putting the numbers in context, as Michael Fumento notes on Forbes, provides a counterbalance to the idea that we are facing a new threat: we’re always dealing with the threat of flu, and it always exacts a toll:

A calm perspective of the current outbreak of the virus now known as influenza A (H1N1) would compare it to seasonal flu. According to the CDC, the seasonal flu infects between 15 to 60 million Americans each year (5% to 20%), hospitalizes about 200,000 and kills about 36,000. That comes out to over 800 hospitalizations and over 250 deaths each day during flu season.

Worldwide deaths are 250,000 to 500,000, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), or about 700 to 1,400 per day spread out over the year.

For the very latest WHO estimates, click here


Let’s put the first U.S. death from swine flu into perspective

April 29, 2009

It was inevitable that the first death from porcine influenza would receive a banner headline in massive 36 point, all caps type on Matt Drudge: “FIRST DEAD: MEXICAN WHO CAME TO USA FOR TREATMENT.”

The news concerns a 23-month old Mexican boy who fell ill earlier this month on a visit to Texas and, sadly, died this week in a hospital in Houston. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed this morning that the boy had H1N1, the so-called “swine flu.”

The scale of the headline on Drudge reflects the way an alarming frame for news creates and then feeds on public panic. Typically, news organizations treat public anxiety as an objective phenomenon that they have had no influence on, but by noon, Google News was logging over 42,000 news stories mentioning the death.

As Fox News noted, the news comes “amid increasing global anxiety over a health menace that authorities around the world are struggling to contain.” Reuters (via the Guardian) also noted that “swine flu could threaten millions” with other diseases.

While the possibility that H1N1 could mutate into a virulent global pandemic cannot be ruled out as merely hypothetical, it is far from becoming reality.  It should be borne in mind that children die every year in the U.S. from less novel forms of the flu – in the most recent breakdown of the data 119 children between the ages of one and four died of influenza/pneumonia in the U.S. in 2004.

Meanwhile, an Australian newspaper reports that the number of swine flu deaths has been overestimated, and that an official from the World Health Organization claims that only seven deaths have been confirmed so far as H1N1.


One percent of health reporters say health coverage in U.S. is excellent

March 12, 2009

The Association of Health Care Journalists and the Kaiser Family Foundation conducted a survey and found that only 1 percent of reporters covering health thought that coverage of health in the media was “excellent.” A majority – 51 percent – said that coverage was fair, 34 percent said it was good, while 14 percent rated it as poor. The situation doesn’t look promising as respondents argued that they are getting fewer resources than ever before, and are expected to produce more material in less time. Still, reporters appeared divided as to whether health care journalism in the U.S. is going in the wrong direction – 52 percent said it was going in the right direction, and 67 percent said it was going in the right direction at their organization. In other words, the problem is worse if you look at someone else’s back yard.

The inconsistencies in the results suggest that what is needed to truly answer these questions is a study which tallied the accuracy of health coverage with reporters’ self-evaluations of their accuracy. Indeed, the critical question raised by this study is how these changes in journalism are affecting the quality of reporting. The survey suggested that reporters acknowledged one of STATS major gripes, churning articles out of press releases without due regard to what the study actually says or what experts think of its conclusions:

Nearly nine out of ten (88%) say the media’s coverage of health care leans too much toward short stories and quick hits; and two-thirds (64%) say the situation in that regard has gotten worse in the past few years. Perhaps as a consequence of the time crunch, just under half (44%) of respondents say their organization sometimes (34%) or frequently (10%) reports stories based on news releases without substantial additional reporting (56% say that rarely or never happens).

89 percent said that “time to research” is one of the top two important elements to high quality reporting, but 53 percent said that this had suffered in the past few years. Remarkably, the one area where health reporters think they’re doing a reasonable job – covering medical research  (only 12 percent say that media coverage is poor) – is the area where STATS finds the most concern in terms of statistical and scientific analysis.

Indeed, the study suggests that reporters are more concerned about other health issues, such as health disparities and health care politics, which means that attempts to get more and better quantitative reasoning into the news coverage are unlikely to happen anytime soon. The statistics about health care reporting, in other words, are becoming even scarier than they were when they only applied to the medical studies.


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