To veg or not to veg? The jury’s probably still out.

There’s some interesting research being reported today about the health impact of a meatless diet. Specifically, an Austrian study found that people who ate a vegetarian diet had 50 percent more heart attacks and 50 percent more cancer diagnoses than those who ate meat.

A little shocking, right?

The debate over whether or not being a vegetarian is healthier than being a carnivore is ancient, but for those on both sides, the scientific evidence thus far has been largely frustrating. I think this is mostly because it is rare to find researchers willing to say that “X causes Y so you should never/always do Z.” (I wrote about this recently for The 2×2 Project, specifically with regard to the science – or lack thereof – for gluten-free diet recommendations in non-Celiac patients).

Perhaps more than research on many other health topics, diet research is of high public interest and often becomes a source of intense, heated debate. Diet is personal, and it’s something that is relatively within our control, especially if we have the financial means to change it. Everyone wants a “magic pill,” as Dr. Paul Crane, an researcher who has studied the potential link between blood glucose levels and dementia, told me in an interview for the gluten-free diet story. In reality, that “magic pill” is hard to find. Unfortunately, the frustration that stems from this reality sometimes leads to extrapolating diet advice from studies that aren’t necessarily built to give it.

The media plays a big role in this, of course. Since people are drawn to diet-related cures and remedies for the varying things that ail us, it makes sense that when a study like this one, and the one before it that ostensibly came to the opposite conclusion, come along, they make headlines.

But it’s important to note that despite what some of those headlines say — PolicyMic’s “Scientists Prove What We All Secretly Think About Vegetarians” feels particularly sensational — the study itself may not say that at all.

To be fair, though, their story points out a bit farther down that while the researchers found that the vegetarians they studied experienced generally worse health and had higher levels of anxiety and depression, they also hypothesized that the subjects might be vegetarians because of these pre-existing health issues.

And the most interesting piece to me: the researchers noted that their vegetarian subjects also had “poor health care practices,” such as failing to obtain preventative care and avoiding vaccines. Could that say more about the mindset of these particular vegetarians than about what a meatless diet is doing to their bodies? Hopefully the researchers will pursue this question further.

I think PolicyMic and sites like it take an important step in actually linking to the studies they’re writing about, so if people are skeptical or simply curious, they can take a look at the data for themselves. But as journalists we have had to come to accept that a great number of the people who see the headline will either simply retweet without clicking through at all, or read only the headline and first few paragraphs of the story. They don’t have time to read to the end of the story, let alone attempt to parse a long medical journal article; that’s why we’re presenting the material in a more easily-digestible format. We just need to be careful that the facts — inconclusive as they may be — aren’t lost in the process.

Growing Pains

This week, two of the subjects I follow most closely – sexual assault activism and critiques of the media – converged to create a tense (and intense) conversation about how the latter should approach the former, when Christine Fox (@steenfox) asked sexual assault victims to tweet what they were wearing when they were assaulted. A writer at BuzzFeed who has covered sexual assault extensively for the site put together a post using some of the tweets, and what ensued was what I hope will be the tumultuous beginning to a more nuanced conversation about journalism ethics regarding the use of comments on social media. 

Many responses to the situation focused on the point that Twitter is public, so those who participated in the “event” were not entitled to the privacy they later claimed.

As a feminist and a journalist, this has led to a lot of self-reflection for me over the last couple of days. So I’m going to mostly defer to this great piece by Kat Stoeffel for NY Magazine:

[The BuzzFeed writer] was under no obligation to reach out to the people who participated in Fox’s conversation under public Twitter handles, some of whom were righteously proud to have been handed the BuzzFeed microphone. Still, none of that inoculates Testa or BuzzFeed or other purveyors of listicles from the critiques at hand: Posts like this amount to selling a recording of other people’s group therapy while sending a fire hose of potentially unfriendly attention in the general direction of its participants.

Stoeffel says this may represent an internet “growing pain.” I would argue it also represents a growing pain in communications between journalists and their readers and subjects as those communications become easier and more frequent via social media.

We can preach about the laws and ethics we learn about in J School until we turn blue; that won’t change the fact that someone felt victimized, and that approach can backfire. I know the importance of not letting your story get away from you or be controlled by a source, but I also know the importance of doing justice to the person who lived the story. And I think that means really telling a story, valuing context over speed, brevity or clicks. It also means that, as we become more immediately accountable for our work, “face-to-face” with our sources and readers online, we may need to find new ways to explain how and why we do what we do.

Something big is happening in Iowa

A little back story: Like many colleges and universities, the University of Iowa has had a sexual assault problem for a while. Examples herehere and here. And statshere.

It’s not just a problem of too many rapes; many argue that the way the university handles them is a huge part of the problem.

Whenever a sexual assault is reported on campus, students and members of the university community get a “Timely Warning” email. One recent email (forwarded to me by a friend) included this language:

“In response to this incident, the University of Iowa Police are providing the following information on acquaintance sexual assaults. This information is general in nature and has no relation to this specific incident. Victims are never responsible for the offenders’ behavior.

[…]To help decrease the risk of sexual assault in our community, it may be helpful to keep the following in mind: Alcohol and drugs are often used to create vulnerability to sexual assault. Studies of sexual assault incidents show a high correlation between acquaintance rape and drug/alcohol usage.  Be alert to people pressuring you or others to use a drug or alcohol. Always trust your instincts.  If you feel uneasy or sense something is wrong, do what you can to get out of that situation.  Be an active bystander if you see others in harms way; call the police to ask for assistance.

If you engage in sex, be sure you understand your partner’s limits, and communicate your own limits clearly. Don’t engage in sexual activities without affirmative consent from your partner. For more information see:  http://dos.uiowa.edu/policy-list/affirmative-consent-2/

This may be more than many universities would do, in that it specifically states that sexual assault is never the victim’s fault, and includes a line about understanding your partner’s limits and even a link to information about consent. But the bolded line has left a lot of people cringing, as have lines like this one, in another recent “Timely Warning” email:

“Alcohol and drugs are sometimes used to create vulnerability to sexual assault and may impair yours and your acquaintance’s judgment. Studies of sexual assault incidents show a high correlation between acquaintance rape and drug/alcohol usage. Keep control of your drink.”

Again, the bolded language and the passive tone (“alcohol and drugs are sometimes used,” instead of “rapists sometimes use alcohol and drugs”) have rankled. The emails seem to put responsibility on the victim for preventing a friend, boyfriend, acquaintance or stranger from taking advantage of them, activists say, even if reminders about consent and bystander intervention are sprinkled throughout.

Concerned students and faculty say the emails are just one example in a widespread tendency at the university toward the “don’t get raped,” as opposed to “stop raping,” method of addressing the issue, and after a recent spate of sexual assaults and controversial comments from the university president, a group of them launched a protest Sunday.

It was a small protest, just a dozen or so women with signs and tape on their mouths, a few of whom removed said tape and interrupted university president Sally Mason’s intro to her annual presidential lecture. Part of the goal, according to the Daily Iowan, was to draw attention to the following comment about rape, made by Mason during a Q&A with the paper last week:

“The goal would be to end that, to never have another sexual assault,” Mason said. “That’s probably not a realistic goal just given human nature, and that’s unfortunate, but the more we understand about it, the better we are at trying to handle it and help people get through these difficult situations …”

One of the organizers of the protest, Chelsea Bacon, interrupted Mason — who appeared to have known that the interruption was coming and prepared remarks — to say that the university does not, in fact, have a “zero tolerance policy for rapists” because it encourages rape culture with the language of its “Timely Warning” emails and comments like Mason’s “human nature” remark. (You can watch a video of the protest here.)

It was a relatively quiet protest. It was not violent, and no one was arrested, though Bacon says (in comments on the linked Daily Iowan article) that Mason “used police force to threaten us with arrest at an event open to the public.” Mason did not seem angered, and after the group left she said that she “supports them 100 percent.”

So why the focus on this tiny event? The protest spawned another, larger onetoday, and a movement to change how sexual assault is addressed on college and university campuses is growing. The events at Iowa, which appears very aware of its issue and has taken some steps toward addressing it, beg the question — why does it seem to be so hard to get it right? 

Recognizing The Impact Of “Uncivil” Discourse Online

As someone who chooses to discuss her opinions online — usually on my Facebook wall after linking to an article that invokes thoughts of sexism, racism, environmental or legal issues — I’m used to having heated discussions with both friends and strangers on the internet.

The common advice for those who publish their work online is to not read comments at all, and for those who read online and discuss in forums like Facebook, the advice is “don’t feed the trolls.” In other words, don’t engage with people who are just being terrible for the sake of being terrible. Ostensibly because it will make you look bad yourself, and also because if you don’t pay attention to them, they’ll go away.

It’s pretty solid advice, depending on your definition of “troll.” But what used to refer to an anonymous commenter looking to derail any conversation at any cost seems now to apply to anyone who says something false, argumentative, hostile, racist, sexist or otherwise offensive.

Whenever someone tells me, “It’s just Facebook/Twitter/the internet! Who cares what they think?” I can’t help but feeling like we’ve slid back toward the belief that things said or published on the internet somehow “don’t count.”

Some of them don’t, of course. And when it comes to comments, there is certainly a healthy army of legitimate trolls ready and willing to fight for fighting’s sake.

But a great deal of legitimate discourse now takes place online, and we’ve spent years arguing that it is not cheapened by its location. Insisting that code can be as useful as the printed word in telling a story, convincing investors that a micro-blogging platform with a 140-word limit will encourage conversations and the free flow of information, demanding freedom to express ourselves here and be protected from hacking and censorship.

We need to also be aware that the people who harm true discourse offline — not the hecklers but the bigots, the manipulators, the willfully ignorant, those unwilling to hear the other side but insistent on proclaiming theirs — are present online as well, and are having an impact.

Last year, Popular Science famously turned off comments on its articles after finding that “even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story.”

Former digital editor Suzanne LaBarre wrote at the time of a recent study led by Dominique Brossard of University of Wisconsin-Madison which found that the prevalence of “uncivil comments” on an article about the risks of nanotechnology impacted readers’ perception of the information the article presented.

“Simply including an ad hominem attack in a reader comment was enough to make study participants think the downside of the reported technology was greater than they’d previously thought,” Dietram A. Scheufele wrote of the study in the Times.

The takeaway was that commenters shape public opinion. And there’s a good case for arguing that the people we call our friends — both literally and in the Facebook sense of the word — shape our own opinions and levels of understanding more than we might think, as Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler wrote in their 2011 book Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives — How Your Friends’ Friends’ Friends Affect Everything You Feel, Think and Do.

At this point in our cultural relationship with social media, it’s irresponsible to brush off ignorance, the spreading of false information, sexism, racism, hatefulness and threats as “something some idiot said on the internet.” The internet is our home, it’s where a growing number of us work, meet the loves of our lives and get the majority of our news.

Because of this, we need to recognize — and yes, attempt to ameliorate — threats to productive communication online. If we starve trolls, they may go away and bother someone else, never doing any “real” damage that we can see. But when we ignore the influence of lies, indignance and hostility and encourage others to do the same, we aren’t showing how we are “above arguing on the internet.” We’re helping to perpetuate ignorance.

Journalism After Snowden

On Thursday night, I headed up to Columbia after work for the J School’sJournalism After Snowden panel. It was the inaugural event in what, according to Tow Center for Digital Journalism leader Emily Bell, will be a year-long project aimed at considering how journalism has changed in the wake of Edward Snowden’s leaks and the media’s coverage of them. Bell also mentioned that the Tow Center is working on new tools to help investigative journalists with stories like this one.

The panel included Guardian US’s EIC Janine Gibson, NYT Executive Editor Jill Abramson, legal scholar and former Obama administration “regulatory czar” Cass Sunstein and First Amendment attorney Dave Schulz.

It was an enlightening discussion, heated at times, touching on both the strides and mistakes the media made in the aftermath of Snowden’s leaks. Gibson gave a riveting recap of how the Guardian US got the story, describing everything from Glenn Greenwald’s first phone call to the extreme measures that had to be taken to ensure secrecy while maintaining journalistic ethics and not breaking the law. And Abramson answered Bell’s question about whether it was a “failure of the press” that everyone was so shocked after the information leaked with a resounding “no.” The media has not been asleep, she said, the fact that Snowden had to break the news was just a testament to how big the problem is.

And from the attorneys came a call to action: both Schulz and Sunstein argue that we need a better definition of “privacy” in this country.

I live-tweeted the event, and below are a few of the comments from the panelists that resonated with me. Unfortunately, the CMS I’m using doesn’t support embedding Tweets, so these are screen caps. (Side note: the #aftersnowden hashtag had an interesting impact outside the journalism community/those who were actually at the event. I saw unaffiliated users talking about how they felt less secure online #aftersnowden, while others questioned why we were talking about “after” when the story is still unfolding.)

I meant to say *and* here, not *as,* but Sunstein made an interesting point — it’s a bit of a cop out when the government uses “maintaining a ‘balance'” as an excuse for undue surveillance/persecution of journalists/lack of transparency. 

Schulz also noted that while the US AG recently said that he would “not prosecute journalists for doing journalism,” we don’t have a clear, legal definition of “doing journalism.”

Is one OK for the government to gather/keep and the other not? Why?And how have Snowden’s leaks and the government’s response to the media’s coverage impacted journalism? The following two quotes from Abramson and Gibson sum it up, and it’s not a pretty picture.

That last comment really stuck with me. On several occasions, prosecutors have attempted to accuse journalists of violations of the Espionage Act, and Greenwald has been labeled a “co-conspirator” of Snowden’s. The legal scholars recommended (to the government) a re-reading of the Espionage Act, and a re-acquaintance with its historical context, while the editors expressed uncertainty about what might come next. Members of the Guardian staff are still being investigated for their alleged part in Snowden’s leak, and if the executive editor of the New York Times says the fallout is chilling sources, if not reporters, it’s clear the impact has been huge. But is it irreversible?The recommendations made by Sunstein and his colleagues about personal privacy are a step in the right direction, but I think when it comes to avoiding the criminalization of journalism, we may need to move toward Schulz’s suggestion of establishing an official standard of “doing journalism.”

What everyone can learn from the Grantland “Dr. V” controversy

Just wanted to share this thoughtful (in my opinion) apology and explanation from Bill Simmons of Grantland, responding to the backlash against “Dr. V’s Magical Putter.”When I first read the story, I definitely cringed, both as a journalist and as a person who has recently become more educated about what it means for someone to be transgender, and the best way to talk and write about it. I tend to agree with Simmons and many of my colleagues that Dr. V’s history as a man was relevant to the story, to a point; it was the reason Hannan couldn’t find any information about her prior to 2001, and the point of the story, ostensibly, was that this was a very mysterious person.

But the reporting and writing was flawed. Hannan outed Dr. V to one of her investors, perhaps not even realizing the significance of what he was doing. And the prose felt cold, lacking empathy and almost feeling vindictive at times. Not to mention the misuse of personal pronouns.

But Simmons’s apology and explanation addressed all of this, and with a depth that I hope becomes the norm in web journalism. Instead of shrinking away from the comments and Tweets and blog posts, Grantland considered it all, reflected,and issued a thoughtful, sincere response.

I think it’s an important read for everyone; not just editors and journalists. It carries a vital message not just for journalism ethics, but for empathy in general, something that feels lacking in so much online discussion.

This one phrase really stuck out to me:

“I read Caleb’s piece a certain way because of my own experiences in life. That’s not an acceptable excuse; it’s just what happened.”


Our experiences naturally color our actions. Acknowledging that can have a profound impact on future understanding. That’s why I think it’s so important that Grantland shared this entire experience with its readers, and essentially with everyone else in the media. We could all learn a lot from it.