BBC piece on vitamin research a great example of engaging explanatory journalism


Photo: Dean Shareski via Flickr
Photo: Dean Shareski via Flickr

Anyone who has covered medical research for a while knows how fraught it can be to report on vitamin supplements and “wonder” foods with antioxidants and other substances aside from FDA-regulated drugs.

Since the FDA does not regulate these products with the same guidelines and stringency as it does pharmaceuticals and medical devices, it can be harder to find solid data about them. Further, studies on them are frequently funded by supplement companies or food organizations with a vested interest in their effectiveness or benefits. In an additional complication, there’s a mythology surrounding vitamins that promotes two main ideas: the supplements almost always are beneficial, and even if they aren’t, can’t hurt anyway.

In reality, both beliefs are incorrect — vitamin supplements, particularly for people in high-income or developed countries where most people have good access to a variety of nutritious food — often do nothing to improve health and even can cause harm. Some vitamin supplements even have been linked to an increased risk of cancer. While many journalists reporting on medical studies may know this already, they might not know the history of these misconceptions and the extent to which vitamin supplements can harm. This background can provide necessary context when reporting on vitamins, antioxidants and other supplements, as well as diet, cancer and related topics.

That’s exactly what an outstanding BBC article provides. Reporter Alex Riley says right up front that dosing up on antioxidants — most commonly the reason people take vitamin supplements — is at best likely ineffective and, at worst, possibly sending people “to an early grave.” His story, “Why vitamin pills don’t work, and may be bad for you,” is a great backgrounder and explainer for consumers, but the story it tells can be invaluable for journalists reporting on medical studies as well.

Reporters should have a good handle on the following so they can provide needed context to their audience:

  • What antioxidants and free radicals are
  • How each function in the body
  • The cellular processes that give rise to them
  • The history of how free radicals became the “bad guys” and antioxidants the “good guys” in the canon of nutritional mythology

Riley’s piece uses descriptive but clear language, analogies and imagery to explain complex cellular processes in a way that holds the reader’s interest. For that reason alone, even for journalists who already know the history of Linus Pauling and the mechanisms of free radicals and antioxidants, the story models how to break down these complex concepts into accessible and engaging journalism.

Even if you are the master of this yourself, check out the story for one more reason — it’s a great link to include in a story in which taking the time to explain all these processes isn’t appropriate, but you want to provide background to interested readers.

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Tara Haelle

Tara Haelle is AHCJ’s health beat leader on infectious disease and formerly led the medical studies health beat. She’s the author of “Vaccination Investigation” and “The Informed Parent.”