One story, seven reports

I’ve recently started reading the book, “Flat Earth News” by Nick Davies, about why most news seems to be such rubbish.  In the book, Nick Davies discusses a number of problems with the modern “news industry” (or “churnalism” as he calls it) such as increasing output whilst cutting back on reporters, over-dependence on press wire agencies, re-writting other people’s stories in a game of one-up-manship-meets-chinese-whispers, and so forth. So it was with these issues in mind that I came across this story by an un-named source in the BBC:

A woman has been awarded more than £800,000 after she suffered permanent brain damage while on a detox diet.

The story goes on to explain that Dawn Page was told to drink large amounts of water – later clarified as four pints – and eventually had “an epileptic seizure which damaged her memory, speech and concentration”.  What started my brain buzzing however was the closing statement in the article. After having gone in to some detail as to how drinking too much water is not good for you, the article finishes with:

But others believe detoxing can beneficial [sic] if done property. Ellie Kopiel, 55, detoxes about once a year by limiting her food intake, eating lots of fruit and vegetables and drinking about two litres of water a day.

Closing this article in this way immedeatly reminded me of Nick Davies’ “Rules of Production”, especially Rule 5: Always give both sides of the story.

Rule 5 essentially says that the press, when venturing out of their safe zones, will always pick someone to show the “other side of the story” – even when it can objectively be shown that there is no other legitimate side – just to cover their arse. (I am, of course, crudely paraphrasing Nick Davies).  Having read this article alongside the BBC’s article “The dangers of too much detox“, by Martin Hutchinson – which contains no such cop-out – and bearing in mind the lessons in Nick Davie’s book, I placed a small wager with myself that the story had been re-written from a Press wire agency.  So I had to wonder: how many different ways can one seemingly innocuous news story be reported.

I picked six other sites, all of which also sell newspapers, to see what could be gleened from them. I chose:

Of these, two sources (the BBC and Metro) did not name a source for the article; three named a reporter as the apparent source (Guardian, Telegraph and Evening Standard), whereas only one identified that the story came from a press wire agency: the Northern Echo name the Press Association as being the source.  This is not in itself unusual, but those are the statistics.

All of the seven sources agree on the basic facts: Dawn Page is 52, she has received over £800,000, shortly after starting the detox diet she started vomitting, she suffered had an epileptic fit, and now suffers from some form of brain damage.

Importantly, however, the sources do not agree as to what happened when Mrs Page reported her vomitting to her nutritionist, Ms Nash.  They all report that Mrs Page was told by Ms Nash that vomitting was a perfectly normal part of the process.  The Telegraph gives more details stating:

After a few days she started vomiting but was allegedly assured by Mrs Nash that it was “all part of the detoxification process”. Mrs Page, who weighed 12 stone (76kg), was even urged to increase her water intake to six pints a day and cut her salt intake further.(emphasis mine).

Similarly, the Evening Standard states:

Mrs Nash even urged Mrs Page – who weighed 12 stone – to increase the amount of water she drank to six pints per day and eat fewer salty foods.

And the Mirror:

Mrs Nash suggested Dawn, from Faringdon, near Oxford, increase the amount of water she drank to six pints a day and eat fewer salty foods.

And the Metro:

Mrs Page fell ill days after starting the diet in 2001 but Ms Nash – who denied all liability in the High Court settlement – told her to drink even more water and the dieter suffered a severe epileptic fit.

Four sources out of seven reported that, when complaining of vomitting, Mrs Nash urged Mrs Page to increase her water intake from four-pints of water (over and above her normal liquid intake) to six, and of those three state Mrs Page was advised to reduce salt intake further still. The remaining four don’t report either of these facts.  In fact two – the BBC, and the Northern Echo, implicitly contradict this finding.  The statement by the lawyer acting for the nutritionist is reported on the BBC as saying:

“On behalf of our client we wish to make it clear that all allegations of substandard practice made on behalf of Mrs Page in the litigation have always been and continue to remain firmly denied.

“Equally, the information contained in the medical records suggesting that Mrs Page appeared to have drunk five litres of water on the day that she was admitted to hospital, and therefore disregarded advice given by our client, were also denied by Mrs Page.

In our view as a recognition of this, the settlement amount agreed to be paid was less than half the total amount claimed and the compromise which was offered and accepted was on the basis of no admission of liability.”

The Northern Echo concurs.  If the settlement sum was reduced by half, based on the disputed fact that Mrs Page had allegedly drunk five pints of water on the day she was admitted to hospital, how could it be that Mrs Nash had advised Mrs Page to drink six?  I cannot honestly believe that a settlement of this type would have been reached because Mrs Page had drunk less than she was advised, only that she’d drunk more.

Neither the Telegraph, the Evening Standard, or the Mirror reporting of the statement made by Mrs Nash’s lawyer covers the disputed five pints of water.  Only that she was allegedly told to drink six pints a day.  Either some important detail has been missed, or that’s simply been made up.

Now this is not – by any stretch of the imagination – to defend the self-styled nutritionist. Based upon what I’ve read on the problems caused by drinking too much water, I think she offered some extraordinarialy dangerous advise, irrespective as to whether she advised her client to drink four or six pints.  What’s interesting here is that this is – on the surface – a relatively uncomplicated story, and yet the facts can still get screwed around. The BBC story – by covering their own arses with the “balanced” approach – leave you feeling that detox diets may be okay, even though the article points out what a load of rubbish the nutritionist was spouting.  The Telegraph, the Evening Standard, the Mirror and the Metro are apparently making stuff up, whilst failing to provide the nutritionists statement that would cast doubt on their additional statements.

I don’t really know what further conclusion to reach from this.  I don’t know what really happened in this case, but I am fairly convinced that the national press don’t either, and that bothers me.

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One Response to One story, seven reports

  1. Elyse says:

    Good points. I wish the media would be more professional too. It’s as if these people had never seen the inside of a university. Well, they know who their audience is I guess – the masses, so what does it matter?

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