Last week I guest lectured to a strategic communications seminar class of undergraduate juniors and seniors at the University of Minnesota, many of whom have a particular interest in health. These students are all pursuing degrees in journalism and mass communications, many with aspirations to work on public health campaigns, new media advertising, or in PR for a major healthcare company.
So instead of taking a conventional approach by focusing on the how (or the communications tool/channel of choice), I talked about the why.
Think of it like this. You have a megaphone. That’s your communications tool/channel/vehicle, whatever you want to call it. This is your how. Now, I know megaphones are ancient relics, which is why there was a moment of pause when I asked the class what it was when I flashed a picture of one on the projector screen. But think of Twitter, Facebook, print newspaper, digital media (e.g., Huffington Post, Vox, etc), blogs, television advertisements, magazine advertisements, and so on as your megaphone. These are all ways in which a particular message is amplified and communicated to a large audience.
Here’s the thing with megaphones, though. Someone has to hold it and speak into it. In short, someone controls what passes through the megaphone. This person is the gatekeeper. They decide the information that’s filtered out, and what information gets broadcast. Whether this person is an obesity researcher whose work is funded by Coca-Cola (like in the case of the researchers affiliated with Global Energy Balance Network) or this person is a weight loss guru trying to sell the latest diet book or this person is me, we all have interests and we all filter information before it enters the megaphone. As I wrote previously, we all make choices about what facts to include and which to omit. This is the why.
And the why matters, especially in situations when it’s extremely challenging to identify what the interests are. For example, there’s considerable evidence suggesting a consistent connection between industry-funded nutrition studies and a higher likelihood that the findings of said study will be favorable to the financial interests of the funder. In one study, this likelihood was 4-8 times higher.
But right now, if you were to look at scientific journal abstracts on PubMed, an NIH-supported database of more than 26 million articles from biomedical and life science journals, there is no indication of funding source. You can see the author affiliations (i.e. their university or other organization affiliation), but any declarations of conflict of interest are only accessible if you have access to the full journal article, which lies behind a pretty expensive pay wall (open access journals are of course the exception to this, which there are a growing number of).
So, for the average person who clicks on a link from a NY Times article on obesity (or a Facebook post, or a tweet on Twitter) that takes them to the original journal article, they will likely be able to read the abstract and see the author affiliations, but have no idea who actually funded the study.
To go back to the megaphone analogy, they can identify the person holding the megaphone, but they don’t have the full story about why they are holding the megaphone and why they might be saying what they are saying into the megaphone.
As much as we don’t want it to be, health research is a political game. There are (strong) interests playing, some with larger megaphones than others. But no matter the megaphone, the decision about when and how a message is communicated into the megaphone is a political one.
And then it’s up to us to try and make heads or tails of it.
If you’re interested my slide deck from the lecture, you can access them HERE.