In Search Of Responsible Media

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It’s no secret that the dietary supplement industry continues to be the subject of seemingly endless mainstream media reports about “unregulated” industry; references to “snake oil salesmen”; and “ineffective,” “adulterated” and “unsafe” products, among a host of other transgressions, real or imagined.

You almost can’t open up your email without finding a new negative article, often from supposedly responsible, respected media outlets.

It is clear that the industry, which had to go to Congress to force the Food and Drug Administration to finally create GMPs more than 13 years after passage of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, has issues to resolve in the eyes of legislators, FDA and since February, a pool of state regulators led by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

UNPA remains resolute in its position that the law isn’t the problem; the problem is a lack of resources and resolve at FDA to enforce the law. But will certain members of Congress stop complaining about industry long enough to champion—and pass—legislation to provide FDA with the funds needed to do its job and weed out irresponsible players? Don’t hold your breath waiting for that one.  

But this article is about media.

Negative media and its implications in a digital world

In my role at UNPA, I see all of the negative media. And since the Schneiderman fiasco, there’s been a lot more of it—much of it repeating, over and over, the inaccuracies at the core of the N.Y. AG’s original investigation. But something has changed. Much of the critical articles that I see now have taken a new, more sinister tone, as if a mysterious anti-supplement-industry-bias virus has infected the minds of a number of mainstream journalists.

Let’s start with the original two articles that launched Schneiderman’s latest career as supplements basher, authored by New York Times writer Anahad O’Connor, available here and here. Funny thing is that O’Connor is a supplements user and shops at GNC. Go figure.

Even after repeated requests by a number of industry representatives, including from leaders of the industry trade associations, O’Connor has never apologized for or corrected his inaccurate reporting and misstatements about the DNA barcode testing that falsely implicated a host of botanical extract products from four of the nation’s top retailers.

Sadly, this lack of accountability is the norm and not the exception. Another big issue, in the face of ebbing subscriptions to traditional print media, is that the unquenchable demand for—and access to—free content on the Internet has created a legion of self-proclaimed consumer “journalists.”

Did I say journalists? That’s part of the problem. Reduced budgets at traditional mainstream media, which means less fact checking, along with little to no oversight of “articles” that are posted daily on the Internet by anyone with a keyboard and Wi-Fi access, means that you truly can’t believe everything you read. But that doesn’t stop inaccuracies and falsehoods about the very foundations of responsible industry from reaching millions and millions of consumers. And unlike the pre-Internet daily newspaper, which got discarded or recycled later that same day, online content is there, well, until it’s taken down. Which means, right or wrong, true or false, it’s there essentially forever.

Beside the mistaken assertions that this is an unregulated industry, I’ve been most frustrated with the endless repeating, including in some supposedly high-profile media outlets, of how the N.Y. AG’s testing showed there was nothing in most of the samples of botanical products its office tested. Wrong! A simple phone call to one of the trade associations (ever hear of providing balanced reporting, anyone?) or a simple google search would have provided a plethora of articles that present the other side of the story: that extracts don’t contain the DNA of the raw material. But I guess that’s asking too much of mainstream media these days.

And if you attempt to call out these errors as a representative of an industry trade organization? You might have well have not bothered. In the eyes of today’s, ahem, journalists, as well as a lot of readers, the facts be damned. You have little credibility because you are obviously biased and are not to be trusted.

Accountability? Not so much.

Just one example of how far industry has yet to go to get the attention and respect of current (and future) writers is my experience with the writer of an article posted on discovery.com on March 20, titled “Herbal Supplement Safety Crackdown Underway: Attorneys General from several states have launched a crackdown on unregulated herbal supplements” (emphasis mine). It’s worth a read as it’s a classic case of a reporter making factually inaccurate statements and blindly repeating wrong information.

I sent an email that same day to the author, who professes to be an investigative journalist that applies “critical thinking and scientific methodologies to unusual claims.” I supplied him with a list of supplement regulations and a link to the FDA website that lists them; pointed out the errors in the AG’s investigation, included a PDF to a white paper discussing the limits of the technology written by experts in the field and a link to a Forbes article that got the coverage right; disputed his unsubstantiated claims about safety issues with supplements; and requested a correction immediately.

His response was short. It never addressed any of my points and instead included links to three articles about BMPEA found in products labeled as dietary supplements.

I wrote him again, pointing out that by law, products containing non-dietary ingredients are adulterated and, even by FDA’s own definition, are not dietary supplements. And, oh, by the way, would you please address all of the errors in your story?

Pertinent excerpts from his next response, with highlights by me:

Hi Frank, 

… One of the curious things about being a writer is that anyone and everyone feels entitled to contact you with their opinions, comments, and suggestions about whatever you write. I've written thousands of articles, many on contentious subjects, and invariably people will contact me wishing to engage me in a debate about the subject. …

Some are sincere and some aren't, but in either event I simply don't have the time or resources to provide fulsome responses. On the rare occasion I have tried to do so, whatever I write invariably (unless it agrees in every aspect with whoever's writing to me) results not in some understanding or conclusion but in more and more responses and follow-up replies, in a back-and-forth manner that I simply cannot devote the time for. 

It has nothing to do with being afraid to engage in the subject or inability to admit mistakes. Instead it's a practical issue; I get several e-mails like yours each month and I must respectfully decline to engage in a time-consuming and very likely fruitless exchange of ideas and opinions on the subject. Receiving an e-mail with a difference of opinion on a given subject does not obligate me (or anyone else) to set aside other pressing work obligations to address them. If there are significant and demonstrable factual errors that's one thing, but much of your original e-mail, for example, challenged the motivations of the NY AG. I have no information or opinion on the AG's motivations and am not really interested in exchanging speculation about it. I'm sure you understand. 

My immediate response:

Glad you’re busy. That’s a very good thing. And I am sure you get deluged with email in response to articles that you post. The Internet age means that all content has an extended, perhaps indefinite shelf life, much unlike the old days of print-only journalism.

But that’s one of the reasons I wrote. The errors contained in your original piece—not my opinions about your article—will continue to inform and influence consumers for a very long time. 

It’s clear that you don’t feel the need to make any changes or amendments to your article—your prerogative—but it’s irresponsible. For the record, the three points that I questioned: supposed lack of industry regulation, the terrible misuse of science that aided the N.Y. AG’s bully pulpit and absolutely no cases or proof of safety issues, stand as factual errors.

If you choose to cover the dietary supplement industry in the future, I hope you’ll do so with some level of accuracy, fairness and balance. As I offered before, I am happy to make myself available as a resource if and when that time comes.

Later.—Frank

Not surprisingly, I never heard back from him. The good news was that he engaged at all and maybe will put a bit more effort into his reporting of the industry going forward; the bad news was that no corrections to his original story were ever posted.

Getting proactive to create positive media

The solution to addressing bad media for industry is to avoid it in the first place. A proactive media strategy will require a number of closely integrated efforts that include, among other things, a broad, consistent and easily understood media education program; providing factual and accurate information and resources to journalists; and making available credible and respected spokespeople to represent us. Such an initiative will require energy and substantial resources and will require years—not months—to have a major impact. But it’s what’s needed. We at UNPA are working to develop such a strategy and welcome any interested parties to join us in this important project.

Meanwhile, I’ll continue to work to guide journalists on the path of providing accurate and truthful information about dietary supplements, their place within a federally regulated industry, as well as the numerous, scientifically backed benefits they provide consumers seeking a life of health and wellness.

And you can print that. WF

Posted 6/9/2015