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Health and Fitness, Media, Parenting, Pediatrics, Research

Depictions of obesity in children's movies

Depictions of obesity in children's movies

As winter break approaches for schoolchildren, movie-watching in theaters or snuggled together on the couch may be on the family calendar. But while ratings alert parents to violent or otherwise “adult” content, some more hidden messages within a movie could have an impact on a child’s well-being.

A new study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill focused on messages about healthy eating and obesity in films. Researchers looked at 20 of the most popular children’s movies released in the U.S. between 2006 and 2010 and found that a good number featured characters that overeat and under-exercise and/or stigmatization of overweight and obesity.

As described in a release:

Segments from each movie were assessed for the prevalence of key nutrition and physical behaviors corresponding to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ obesity prevention recommendations for families, prevalence of weight stigma, assessment of the segment as healthy, unhealthy or neutral, and free-text interpretations.

With regard to eating behaviors, the researchers found that 26 percent of the movie segments with food depicted exaggerated portion size, 51 percent depicted unhealthy snacks and 19 percent depicted sugar-sweetened beverages.

With regard to depiction of behaviors, 40 percent of movies showed characters watching television, 35 percent showed characters using a computer and 20 percent showed characters playing video games.

The authors conclude that these movies “present a mixed message to children: promoting unhealthy behaviors while stigmatizing the behaviors’ possible effects.” The study (registration or purchase required) appears in the journal Obesity.

Previously: Sugar intake, diabetes and kids: Q&A with a pediatric obesity expertTalking to kids about junk food ads and Health experts to Nickelodeon: Please stop promoting unhealthy food to our kids

In the News, Media, Neuroscience, Research, Stanford News

How epilepsy patients are teaching Stanford scientists more about the brain

How epilepsy patients are teaching Stanford scientists more about the brain

Earlier this fall, we linked to a KQED piece highlighting how treating and researching patients with severe epilepsy is helping scientists understand functions of the human brain. That piece spotlighted Nate Bennett, a Stanford Hospital patient, and the work of his physician, neurologist Josef Parvizi, MD, PhD; this morning a longer, more in-depth version of the story aired on NPR.

Previously: Implanting electrodes to treat epilepsy, better understand the brainAsk Stanford Med: Neurologist answers your questions on drug-resistant epilepsyWe’ve got your number: Exact spot in brain where numeral recognition takes place revealed and Metamorphosis: At the push of a button, a familiar face becomes a strange one

Media, Scope Announcements, Stanford News

50,000 Twitter followers – and counting

50,000 Twitter followers - and counting

Twitter 50,000 followersWe’re pleased to announce that we reached a Twitter milestone today: Our @SUMedicine feed now has 50,000 followers. We’re grateful for your support, and we look forward to continuing to expand our social community. And if you’re not already following us on Twitter, we hope you’ll check us out.

Previously: Five thousand blog entries – and counting and Introducing the @ScopeMedBlog Twitter feed

Media, Medicine and Society, Technology

Subjects for doctors to avoid when using social media

To post, or not to post? Sometimes, especially on Twitter, it’s a fine line to walk. Over on Wing of Zock, Bryan Vartabedian, MD, lists five subjects he tends to avoid, even at the risk of missing a good story.

Vartabedian explains why he chooses to err on the side of privacy:

Beer. I once spoke at a meeting out of town and caught up with some friends at the end of the day to visit and have a beer. I shared some details of my meetup and the particulars of the IPA I was enjoying. The following week in clinic a parent made a tongue-in-cheek comment on what I had shared. The comment reminded me that everyone’s watching and 140 characters doesn’t offer enough space to explain the why, or the time zone, of what I’m doing. So I now typically keep activities like beer consumption out of reproducible public view.

These and the other four are thoughts worth sharing.

Previously: Does age affect doctors’ adoption of technology?How a “culture of permission” prevents doctors from being active in social mediaAdvice for physicians when interacting with patients online and How can physicians manage their online persona? KevinMD offers guidance

Media, Medicine and Society, Public Health

Is medical information on Wikipedia a public-health problem?

Is medical information on Wikipedia a public-health problem?

2453225588_bd12f72712Anyone can edit Wikipedia, but who actually does? Weird Al Yankovic, for one, according to his song “White and Nerdy.” But while many citizen editors have good intentions in sharing and refining information in the public domain, subjects such as medical information require further oversight by qualified professionals. Beth Bengston, principal at Hale Advisors, writes in a piece for Ragan’s Health Care Communication News that Wikipedia’s unreliable information, often taken by readers as truth, poses a public health problem.

From the piece:

Those in the health care industry, especially drug manufacturers and the FDA, have a public health responsibility to play a role in helping to fix the inaccuracies and incomplete information on Wikipedia. Sure, there are some challenges—like the perception that the drug manufacturers have a conflict of interest or that getting anywhere near user-generated content will result in a visit from the FDA, but we should work toward common sense solutions.

Wikipedia has a role to play, as well. It needs to embrace drug manufacturers and assume they have the right intent in ensuring accurate information is available to the public. Some might argue that drug manufacturers in the past have been caught trying to game the system by removing damaging information about their products. But the beauty of Wikipedia is that the community will find and fix those self-serving changes.

Previously:  The importance of curation and communities when crowdsourcing clinical questionsA call to tap “latent creative” physicians in the medical communitySocial media advice from a physician-blogger and Advice for physicians when interacting with patients online
Photo by Mikeedesign

Addiction, Media, Research, Science

The disturbing trend of science by press release

The disturbing trend of science by press release

The Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor and Time were among the respected media outlets that recently covered the sensational alleged scientific finding that Oreos are as addictive as cocaine. Some journalists contacted me for my reaction, and I said I would get back to them after I read the study. I searched on PubMed and it wasn’t there. I looked through the “on line early” section of leading journals and it wasn’t there either. Neither could I find it in the published proceedings of any conferences.

Relapsing to a simpler approach, I Googled “Oreos and cocaine” and found the sole source of information available: A press release about an undergraduate research project at Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. It is to the credit of the mentor on the project, Joseph Schroeder, PhD, that he’s teaching bright young people how to do science. I wish, however, he had also taught them something else: The role of peer-review in the promotion of scientific quality and credibility.

Putting out a sensational press release before experts in your field have had a chance to evaluate your scientific work is bad for science and bad for society

A leading scientist in the addiction field, Edythe London, PhD, of UCLA, was able to identify fatal flaws in the Oreo research even on the basis of the limited information in the press release. You can read Dr. London’s discussion of those problems if you wish, but my purpose here is to address a larger point: Putting out a sensational press release before experts in your field have had a chance to evaluate your scientific work is bad for science and bad for society.

The Oreo news stories were upsetting to people struggling with cocaine addiction as they trivialized the problem they face. Judging by the comments on many of the news websites covering the story, the study also fueled many people’s bias that taxpayer dollars are being wasted on studying silly topics. Granted, these harms are less serious than those that occurred when Andrew Wakefield, MD, intentionally deceived many journalists into reporting that the MMR vaccine caused autism, but that still doesn’t make it good practice to report initial findings as facts in the media before one’s work has been peer-reviewed.

Credibility-straining press releases are unfortunately becoming more common in science. And even when a finding is real, a press release can distort its meaning. For example, the recent Qesem cave discovery of fossils from homo sapiens was considered a genuine achievement by experts in physical anthropology and was published in a peer-reviewed journal, but the accompanying press release made wild claims about human evolution that were nowhere to be found in the article. When the shocking claims in that press release were disseminated by journalists, the public was misled and the science was cheapened.

Sensationalized press releases about scientific findings unfortunately can be much more widely disseminated today than in prior eras. Science journalists once had the time and resources to do more shoe leather reporting, conduct follow-up interviews with the scientific team, and interview independent scientists to obtain a careful critique of the findings. But today, as Paul Costello, chief communication officer for Stanford’s medical school, told the Columbia Journalism Review, the “shift to new media Web site traffic” is putting added pressure on reporters, leading some to cut corners in the name of more copy, “often writing right off press releases, even at the good papers.”

If science journalists can no longer be depended on to sort the wheat from the chaff, scientists are going to have to assume more responsibility for self-restraint when they release findings to the press. All of us would like to believe that we never make mistakes in our scientific work. All of us are capable of becoming overly enthusiastic about a pet theory before our colleagues have subjected it to criticism. And all of us can be tempted to hype our findings as a way to draw some gratifying attention to ourselves. But when we give in to those human frailties in our interactions with the media, we undermine our collective credibility and may also harm members of the public who act on the assumption that our claims have been rigorously evaluated.

Addiction expert Keith Humphreys, PhD, is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford and a career research scientist at the Palo Alto VA. He recently completed a one-year stint as a senior advisor in the Office of National Drug Control Policy in Washington.

Previously: The influence of medical press releases on news coverage quality and The problem with “science by press conference”

Media, Research, Science, Stanford News

But is it news? How the Nobel Prize transformed "noteworthy" into "newsworthy"

But is it news? How the Nobel Prize transformed "noteworthy" into "newsworthy"

Stanford Professor Michael Levitt speaks to reporters from his campus home after his Nobel Prize in Chemistry was announced.It’s no secret that Stanford structural biologist Michael Levitt, PhD, won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Chemistry last week for his contributions to the understanding, via computational simulation and molecular modeling, of the immense molecules that we carbon-based lifeforms are made of. This is tremendously valuable work.

But if you’re ever so slightly prone to glazing over at terms such as “computational simulation and molecular modeling,” then I have a real secret to share with you.

I received an e-mail earlier this year from Levitt, with whom I hadn’t met during my five years as a science writer here. He’d just had a paper accepted in the journal Structure and was wondering whether our office might want to publicize it via a news release. “This is my best work since 1976,” he wrote.

Like many studies that pass before my eyes, this was a work of first-rate science. Levitt and his associates had solved the structure of the most complex members of an important class of proteins called chaperonins.

But trying to explain the significance of this finding, let alone Levitt’s math- and computation-heavy methodology, to lay readers via an 800-word news release was a nonstarter. I replied with what I hoped was a respectful explanation of why I couldn’t write a release on the study: The fact that a scientific work is noteworthy doesn’t necessarily make it newsworthy. The working press, we have learned, often require evidence of a direct, easily understood connection between breaking research and its implications for readers in the here-and-now. While understandable, this can make basic research a tough sell.

“Clearly this is a huge methodological advance,” I wrote. “But… it necessarily contains a nested sequence of concepts and references to key molecules. Any of these, alone, would be tough to explain… The attention span of the hyperkinetic, overworked editors and reporters who serve as surrogate readers for [our target nonscientific audience] is simply too short for us to pull that off…”

My message far exceeded the word-count limit of any release I might have scratched together.

Levitt’s response was gracious, serene and practically immediate: “Hi, Bruce. Your note was terrific and oh so helpful. [I have] some trial elevator-pitch paragraphs to try on you, more from the interest of the exercise than for any real desire to get publicity.” And sure enough, there followed two concise, if still somewhat terminologically freighted, paragraphs on his new work and its implications.

I responded: “Hi, Michael. I very much appreciate your efforts.” And, with the sincerest of good intentions, I proceeded to rewrite his paragraphs, substituting my snappy constructions for his honest, earnest explications. I suggested he could consider either concentrating on his new findings or focus on the methods he’d devised to get them. Maybe he’ll find himself in an elevator with a grantor or donor someday, I thought, and here I am helping him find les mots justes for that occasion.

He didn’t write back, but from this parched soil grew a beautiful flower.

Continue Reading »

Media, Science

A reminder to those who write about research: "Candor is essential, but so is perspective"

A reminder to those who write about research: "Candor is essential, but so is perspective"

I’m a few days late to this, but a recent Health News Review blog entry shares the views of a cancer survivor who took issue with the headline on a press release about a new cancer study. The headline highlighted a possible link between lymphoma treatment and stomach-cancer risk, and reading it made this woman feel “like someone punched me in the gut.” As she wrote to blogger Gary Schwitzer:

Putting such a headline in a publication available to the lay public creates an unnecessary threat of anxiety to patients who’ve already suffered a great deal.

I’m not a medical professional and don’t pretend to have the background necessary to understand these things, but it seems as though it’s unnecessarily scary.

As someone who writes about medical research for a living, I took note of her comments. Though it’s my job to report on study findings – even the potentially scary ones – I need to be mindful of how readers will interpret what I’m writing and what they’ll walk away with. “Scientific candor is essential, but so is perspective,” the woman (rightly) notes.

Previously: What made science blogger Ed Yong “a better, more empathetic” journalist and Want to become a better science communicator? Try explaining science to a child

Behavioral Science, Media, Science

A look at the "Serious Scientist Myth"

In an essay today on SciLogs, author Matt Shipman continues a thread bucking what he calls the “Serious Scientist Myth” – the idea that “serious” scientists dislike speaking to news reporters about their work and hold their interview-willing colleagues in low regard.

Shipman, a science writer and public information officer at North Carolina State University, translates peer-reviewed studies on this topic into reader-friendly form – as he suggests that many senior, or simply confident, researchers can do when speaking to the press. And he has fun with another stereotype, this one about journalists:

So, here’s what I want to know: Where did the Serious Scientist Myth come from?

This isn’t a cute narrative trick, where I ask a question at the top of the story and then answer the question for my readers. I have no idea what the answer is. Instead, I’ll explain why I’m asking the question.

Read more here.

Previously: Bryan Vartabedian: Physicians are public affairs professionals, The influence of medical press releases on news coverage quality and The problem with “science by press conference”

Autism, In the News, Media, Medicine and Literature, Mental Health

The Reason I Jump: Insights on autism and communication

As I write this, I’m keenly aware that communication is one of the most common, and perhaps most difficult, things we do. That’s why I was both humbled and heartened when I read about Naoki Higashida’s book The Reason I Jump on Biographile today.

The book is described as a “stunningly clear-eyed look into the experiences of a boy with autism.” But, as explained in the review, many of the themes Higashida addresses in his book, “reveal truths about communication and connection that all humans should contemplate.”

In the Biographile interview, Higashida, who was 13 when he wrote the book, describes hard-to-grasp, prickly concepts such as communicating with compassion, and why good communication is hard work but worth the effort, with bell-like clarity. I cannot wait to get my hands on the book.

From the review:

Some people tend to assume that individuals with all kinds of disabilities have a less than mature understanding of language. But in many cases, even when speech and language production are impaired, understanding is not. Higashida explains to readers that baby talk is disheartening for him to hear as a young man. He encourages people not to talk down to people with autism, or anyone. “True compassion is about not bruising the other person’s self respect,” he writes, revealing not only an expert command of language but also wisdom beyond his years.

To share his experiences and his fiction with the world, and even to communicate basic needs to his family and caretakers, he painstakingly spells out the words on alphabet grids while others transcribe. He admits learning to communicate independently was hard work and at times, he felt “utterly beaten” by the process. But, Higashida reminds us, “to live my life as a human being, nothing is more important than being able to express myself […] it’s about getting across to other people what I need and what I need them to understand.”

Holly MacCormick is a writing intern in the medical school’s Office of Communication & Public Affairs. She is a graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology at University of California-Santa Cruz.

Previously: More Stanford findings on the autistic brainA mother’s story on what she learned from her autistic sonUsing music to improve communication skills in children with neurodevelopmental disorders and Stanford study reveals why human voices are less rewarding for kids with autism

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