Bad journalism perpetuates half-truths and tempts producers to cash in, says Joanna Blythman

When the BBC Trust recently reviewed its science coverage, one comment was that journalists relied on too limited a pool of commentators and sources, so giving audiences ‘an incomplete view of developments in the scientific world’.

This criticism can be levelled at the media in general. There is a tendency in newsrooms to call a handful of rent-a-quotes who will supply trenchant comments to support the thrust of the story in question.

Some twisted health reporting also results from journalists, often non-specialists, being put under acute time pressure to come up with headlines based on the latest research. Case in point? A recent story in the Express, headlined NOW GO TO WORK ON A SUPER-EGG.

The gist of this report was stop the presses! that eggs can now be considered as healthy food. This is scarcely revelatory, but at least the Express has belatedly learnt that the cholesterol-in-eggs-is-bad-for-you myth has been debunked.

Unfortunately, the paper went on to imply that eggs could only be considered beneficial if they came from ‘healthier’ hens fed on a diet of wheat, barley, and malt powder. The scientific basis for this story was a study from Tel Aviv University’s School of Health Professions, which demonstrated that this feed produced eggs higher in anti-oxidants and lower in omega-6 fatty acids.

The distortion in this particular story comes from omission. The misleading message was that unless hens are fed a special cereal-based diet, they will lay eggs that compromise our health. A vital piece of information was missing: hens that feed on grass and forage naturally produce eggs with higher levels of health-promoting micronutrients, such as omega-3s, vitamin E and conjugated linoleic acid, anyway. There’s no need to stuff hens full of oil-rich cereal when a pasture-based diet will do the trick.

But this research creates a business opportunity for egg producers to tinker with their hens’ diet and use this to make health claims for the ‘functionality’ of their eggs.

That’s a pity. A better challenge for egg producers would be moving away from ruinously priced cereal feeds and indoor production to grass-based extensive systems that naturally deliver eggs with enhanced health benefits, only more cheaply and more sustainably.