Fed Up With Lazy Journalism

Another day, another article which blames obese mums and completely misrepresents the research it purports to be reporting on.

Thanks Helen McArdle ‘Health Correspondent’ for The Herald @HMcardleHT, for yet more scaremongering claptrap.

Here’s the article:


Let’s begin with the headline:

Offspring of obese mothers prone to childhood obesity because they develop ‘fatty liver’ in womb

So, that sounds worryingly simple enough, an assertion which is reinforced in the first paragraph:

“CHILDREN whose mothers were obese during pregnancy are more likely to become overweight themselves because they develop a “fatty liver” in the womb, research has found.”

As usual, we’re to blame, and “research has found it”, so the article says, so it must be true. Surely?

Unless you read on.

But the trouble is, how many people do read on with articles like this? How many mums, glancing at this and feeling sick to the pit of their stomach at the potential harm they’re doing to their baby/have done to their children, breath deeply, and flick past to something lighter to brighten the mood? If you’re already pregnant/have had the baby there is little point in finding more things to stress over – being a parent is hard enough!

How many healthcare professionals, busy on a lunchbreak, notice the heading and possibly the first paragraph and move on, because there’s no need to read it – it’s clearly just going to tell the thing they already believe to be true; overweight women are harming their children through greed, laziness, and ignorance?

Not all health professionals think this way, certainly, but I’ve met enough to get the impression that it’s not a rarely-enough-held viewpoint. Newspaper articles like this don’t help matters.

The second paragraph kicks us again when we’re down.

“It has long been known that overweight and obese women are more likely to give birth to heavy babies and that these infants are at greater risk of childhood obesity.”

Actually, (and please correct me if you know of more recent studies to the contrary) I think
the link between big mum=big baby is only shown in studies which failed to adjust for mums with poorly controlled blood glucose levels (usually as a result of poorly managed gestational diabetes). Where this is accounted for, there is no established correlation between otherwise obese mums and heavier babies at birth.

The second claim, that ‘these infants are at greater risk of childhood obesity’ does have some grounding; there are plenty of studies that show a correlation between maternal obesity and childhood obesity. It’s very easy to find data on the mother’s BMI at her booking appointment – and so again, lazy researchers have been known to draw conclusions that pregnancy BMI is a factor in the obesity of a 10 year old, failing to account for the environment the child is growing up in after its birth! Funny how these studies are so rarely interested in paternal obesity as an indicator, isn’t it, since that data is so much less readily available?

Then we get onto the third paragraph and the headline starts to unravel…

“However, research published in the Journal of Physiology has revealed for the first time how fat accumulates in the liver and metabolic pathways are disturbed in foetuses developing in obese mothers with diets high in sugar and fat.”

Hang on a second! That additional information makes quite a bit of difference!! “Obese mothers with diets high in sugar and fat“. So not ALL obese mothers, but the ones with poor diets. Obviously much less catchy as a headline though, isn’t it?

Then comes not just the unravelling, but the full scale chopping up of the headline with the sword of Damocles… if you read further down to paragraph eleven.

“The study was carried out using obese pregnant monkeys.”

I’m sorry? What?! Obese. Pregnant. Monkeys??!?

They didn’t mention that in the title, now, did they? No, in fact, The Herald used the word ‘childhood’ in the title. Could have used the more factually correct ‘infant’; it even comprises fewer letters, but implying that this is research on humans makes this a more compelling read, doesn’t it?

Baboon hanging from its tail above water

The very first word of the article itself is ‘Children’, which we now know should read ‘Baboons’!

While I concede that humans share 91% of their DNA with baboons, there’s definitely enough of a difference between us for that distinction to be quite important.

I can’t do this, for instance. And I’m not overly fond of bananas.>>

If you google a bit, you’ll discover that Helen McArdle didn’t even write all of the article herself. Most of it, the accurate stuff, was lifted directly from this press release from the Physiological Society. The Herald’s only input was just to add confusion and a click-bait title – and bury the essential information deeper in the text. Standard journalistic fare, sadly.

My advice, always read on if you come across a news story that makes you feel uncomfortable about being a bigger mum. More often than not, the article unravels itself as you read, and your fears prove false.

Even better, find the research the article is citing and read that, if possible, (if, in this case, you’re not squeamish about reading of the the deaths by exsanguination of not-quite-to-term baby baboons…)

Primate fetal hepatic responses to maternal obesity: epigenetic signalling pathways and lipid accumulation (72.7 KiB)

This journalistic laziness is so frustrating. Research which usually took scientists months, maybe years to conduct, and several thousand words to explain, are so often twisted and misrepresented when distilled by a journalist into an attention-grabbing article. But the damage is done.

This is all I have to say about that…

A baboon's bottom
If you’d like to get involved in some citizen-led science about high-BMI pregnancy in conjunction with Parenting Science Gang, funded by the Wellcome Trust, then do join our Facebook group here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1955647771354577/


Big Birtha