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If It Bleeds, It Leads

Posted On: 9/21/2010

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The Journal of School Health of the American School Health Association published an article titled "Schoolchildren's Consumption of Competitive Foods and Beverages, Excluding à la Carte" in its September edition (Vol. 80, No. 9), and posted the piece online on Aug. 4 (see abstract). This has been reported on rather widely in the following weeks, in a manner that illustrates a prevailing mindset which is perverting public discourse. Journalism today seems to be in terminal decline, and this episode provides a case study of the problem.

The article presents the findings of four researchers who set out to determine the contributions made by "competitive" foods and beverages to the overall diets of schoolchildren, grouped in various ways. It was based on information collected by the third School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study conducted by the Food and Nutrition Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

This surely is the sort of thing that administrators and parents want to know, and all we will say about the report itself is that it leads off with this definition of the "competitive" sources of refreshment:

"Competitive foods/beverages are those in school vending machines, school stores, snack bars, special sales and items sold à la carte in the school cafeteria that compete with United States Department of Agriculture meal program offerings."

This all was neatly summarized by the Los Angeles Times in a headline that read, "Another study highlights the insanity of selling junk food in school vending machines." But what about those school stores and snack bars, special sales, and à la carte selections in the school cafeteria? Is selling "junk food" through those outlets less insane?

In fact, the L.A. Times article itself is not as hare-brained as the headline implies, and its blurring of nuance can be accounted for by the editorial need to get a lot of information in a little space. Worse is the Kalamazoo Gazette story, posted online by; its lead paragraph asserts:

"Schoolchildren who consume foods purchased in vending machines are more likely to develop poor diet quality, according to research from the University of Michigan Medical School."

In the third paragraph, it gets around to mentioning the other "competitive" sources and, along the way, touches on the finding that 22% of the students surveyed used vending machines -- but then goes right back to using the term "vending machine" as a catchall term.

Similarly, leads its coverage of the report with, "Vending machines in schools can harm children's health, a new study has found." It does quote the study's lead author, University of Michigan Medical School lecturer study lead author Dr. Madhuri Kakarala: "I don't want to project the message that vending machines are bad. But the regulations are very minimal when it comes to 'competitive venues' -- vending machines, school snack shops and school stores." And that is the last we hear of those other retailers.

Doing an Internet search for "school" and "vending" will turn up many stories about vending machines in schools that are selling items favored by contemporary nutrition doctrine, and about youngsters who are buying them. We do not contend that the media are particularly hostile to the vending industry, which got a lot less respect three decades ago than it does now. And we certainly are not unsympathetic to the task of the headline-writer, who must come up with something that the reader will find interesting, arresting or provocative. That is a lot easier to do if the story is about a giant asteroid that's about to slam into the earth.

We are, however, gravely concerned by two elements of the contemporary situation. The larger one is the upsurge in what appears to be a new instance of the recurrent human fear that the present generation has fallen away from the purer, more austere practices of its noble progenitors, and disaster will result if everyone doesn't repent and renounce vanity and degenerate pleasure. Fifteenth-century citizens of Florence burned their luxury goods during one of these outbreaks; we are being exhorted to abjure fast-food hamburgers and sport utility vehicles.

There probably isn't much that can be done about this fit, which presumably will pass, as the earlier ones did. We might speculate that it is related to the sentiment that a contemporary observer, attempting to explain the rise of fascist and communist movements in the 1930s, identified as "the anticapitalist nostalgia of the masses." All we can do is keep our heads and continue to stand up for common sense.

But we can do something about the less metaphysical element, which is the slovenly tendency to summarize complex and nuanced situations by coining and repeating simple phrases, like "corporate greed" and "vending machine," and then to suppose that we can stop thinking.

There is something we all can do about that: We don't have to take it lying down. We need to respond quickly and authoritatively to sloppy reporting -- and to avoid falling into the catchphrase trap ourselves.