The "Evening News" Takes On Supplements
On Monday and Tuesday of this week, the "Evening News" ran a two-part story on supplements. Monday's story focused on herbal supplements, while last night's centered on dietary supplements. Both pieces featured science and medical writer Dan Hurley, who has a new book out that is critical of the supplement industry.
Hurley argues that most supplements don't work, and he says that some can even be harmful, an argument the "Evening News" backed up by interviewing a woman whose "nose was burned off" by an herbal supplement. Each piece also included a comment from someone who says Hurley has it wrong: Monday we had Steve Mister, who works for the supplement industry, and who said that Hurley's book should be discounted because of "lack of science, historical inaccuracies and emphasis on anecdotal evidence and opinion." And Tuesday gave us David Seckman, head of the Natural Products Association, who says supplements are safe and effective.
I came away from the pieces skeptical of supplements. When you have someone like Hurley, who bills himself as a dispassionate observer who simply "looked at what evidence I could find" and reported it, you tend to believe him over representatives of the industry that is being criticized. But I also wanted more. The "Evening News" gave us two sides of the argument, but it didn't tell us which one was right. From watching the pieces, I thought Hurley seemed credible, but I didn't know to what extent he had an agenda of his own – scary stories about burning noses tend to sell books, after all. So while I tended to believe him, I wanted more information.
When the press gives its audience two opposing perspectives, they don't really know what to believe. It's a problem you see all the time in political coverage – a Republican asserts one thing, a Democrat another, and you have no way of knowing who is right. Journalists have a responsibility to step in and sort things out – even if that means suggesting that one side or the other has it wrong. But often they choose not to do so. In the "Evening News" supplements pieces, we learned that there have been "hundreds of studies" about supplements. Why, I wondered, couldn't someone from the "Evening News" have look at those studies and given us a sense of the overall thrust of them? Why couldn't we have heard from more voices who could provide a firmer sense of the truth? I asked CBS News correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi, who reported both pieces.
"This is actually one of those stories where even people who are much smarter than me and who have the studies at their disposal don't have a good answer," said Alfonsi. "There are studies that say they don't work and are ineffective and there are studies that say these things absolutely do have benefits."
Alfonsi added that "if we just wanted a sensational story, we could have just put on Dan Hurley. But there are good arguments for both sides. Honestly, after you read all the studies, talk to everyone, you almost leave more confused than you were before."
The irony of trying to nail down the truth, she continued, is that for many people it won't make a difference what you tell them.
"This is a subject that people are really passionate about – almost like politics or religion," said Alfonsi. "People have a set of beliefs. Most people are going to continue to believe what they believe."
It's a fair argument – the truth isn't always as easy to divine and report as we might like. I do think, however, that viewers might have benefited from a few additional voices in the two pieces, if only so they had a little more information at their disposal.