(Why they matter to your health – but not in the way you’d think)
- Why these monster rats expose how the media works
- And why you can’t trust what the papers say…
- …especially when it comes to your health
This week the UK media reported that rats the ‘size of cats’ were discovered in a housing estate in Tooting.
The pest controller who found them told The Daily Star that the rats were 2ft long and feeding off OTHER rats to grow to their monstrous size.
The story was passed from news website to news website. It was on ITV news, in The Sun and the Evening Standard.
So it must have been true, right?
What a threat to public health! Giant, invincible, disease-carrying rats are poised to gnaw their way into our houses and carry away our children!
It wasn’t true.
Quite quickly, people began to smell a rat (sorry).
Later that day someone on mumsnet spotted that the very same photo was posted in National Geographic under the headline “Giant Swamp Rats”.
Turns out these animals were found in the wetlands of the United States, not a London housing estate.
It was a hoax, and yet the media fell for it, passing it off as serious public health story.
Well, the whole ‘rats the size of cats’ story constantly pops up in different guises in the tabloid press. Usually the photo is of someone holding the rat out close to the camera on a stick so that it looks massive.
This story is a formula that gets lots of clicks and attention (and therefore money from the advertisers).
And this is how a lot of journalism works. In the ferocious battle for clicks on articles, websites race to post the latest story they find online – without doing background checks.
Often articles are recycled, with the words reshuffled and repackaged… known as “churnalism”.
The fake story problem exposed
The next day (17th April), there was an article in The Guardian called “How newsroom pressure is letting fake stories on to the web”.
It was about how newsroom budgets were getting slashed, leaving the editorial team without the resources they need, while also told to focus on traffic figures (that is, how many hits the website gets).
This is a lethal combination.
Because while that’s harmless for celebrity gossip stories, it becomes a lot more harmful when it comes to health news, whether it’s giant rats, cures for cancer, miracle diets or wonder drugs from pharmaceuticals.
There’s less attention paid to where the story is coming from… whether it’s a press release, government propaganda, recycled gossip or a hoax…. and more attention paid to how many clicks it’s going to get.
An unnamed journalist told the Guardian: “There is definitely a pressure to churn out stories, including dubious ones, in order to get clicks, because they equal money.”
This is making the internet, even the respected news sites, a much harder place to get reliable information.
And yet a lot of people get their diet, fitness and disease information from these sites.
For instance, do you remember my email from April the 14th (“Why newspapers are bad for your health”)?
It was about a recent Daily Mail article with the headline:
“Obese woman who married in a size 20 wedding dress reveals how giving up ONE ingredient helped her to halve her weight”.
It turns out that she didn’t really give up one ingredient at all, but embarked on a healthy eating plan with no sugar or junk food and lots of exercise at the gym.
Having dug around further I realised that this (like the giant rat story) is a formula that news websites repeat over and over again to get clicks.
For instance, in the 13th of April, The Daily Star ran this:
“Obese woman drops 7.5st by ditching one ingredient from diet”
It’s almost the same headline as The Mail, and also about a woman who shed half her body weight.
The article says that Donna Docherty “cut out sugar”, which is the “one ingredient”.
But then it says that she hired a personal trainer and began doing serious cardio exercise and body weights. She also dropped all junk food and started a healthy eating plan which she stuck to.
So yet again, the actual story here was pretty much: “Do lots of exercise, eat healthily, cut down on sugar and junk food and you’ll lose weight”.
It doesn’t really say anything unique, it makes people think that ONE ingredient makes the difference… and really it’s just a lure to get you to the site.
Then there was another almost-identical story on the 18th of April in the SAME website.
“Obese woman loses 10st after ditching one unhealthy habit”
There must be a template for these articles somewhere!
In this one, Alex Hook ate eight bag of crisps a day. But then she gave up this unhealthy habit and lost 10 stone.
Except yet again the article says that Alex ALSO cut out junk food, ate more fruit and veg, went to the gym and got a personal trainer.
Oh, and she went to Weight Watchers.
So it was just the crisps that did it?
The problem with these empty calorie stories
What’s fascinating to me, as a writer and researcher, is that the articles are so similar they’re almost identical… and they don’t really tell you anything.
These stories are like empty calories! There’s nothing in here that’s really news, or advice you can take away and apply to your health.
After all, if we could all instantly cut out junk food, give up sugar, get personal trainers and eat tonnes of fruit and vegetables… we’d all be doing it.
We all KNOW that’s the ideal way forward… deep down… but getting there is hard.
In fact, there are only a few people with the privilege of time, money, family support and willpower to achieve this kind of body transformation.
The rest of us struggle.
Many Peoples Doctor readers email me with their problems and say they’re under serious life pressures. They cannot shop for, or cook, super-healthy whole meals from scratch three times a day.
They can’t afford gyms, or find it too embarrassing and intimidating. They have negative influences in their life that put them down or laugh at their ambitions… and family commitments that soak up all their time and attention.
So I won’t promise I can wave a wand and turn it around overnight, but I hope the People’s Doctor can give you the information, insights and motivation to take small steps towards better daily health. Hopefully each week you can take something away that you can really use.
Finally. on the subject of weight control…
If you’re a man over 40 and you’re struggling to lose belly fat and ‘man breasts’ – or you can’t seem to get the energy to do exercise to lose weight these days, consider that the problem could be testosterone related.
Speaking to a GP or medical advisor to get yourself checked out and take a look at this for a natural solution.
That’s it, until next week – stay healthy!