Philip Johnson Glass House

Clickbait Journalists versus Clickbait Nutrition Influencers

Clickbait journalists are taking aim at clickbait nutrition influencers and we wonder: Who benefits from this fracas? Late last week, the Washington Post ran a story exploring the phenomenon of dietitians who are active in social media. Their thesis: “Registered dietitians are being paid to post videos that promote diet soda, sugar and supplements on Instagram and TikTok.”

The journalists – Anahad O’Connor, Caitlin Gilbert, and Sasha Chavkin – found 35 posts from a dozen health professionals that offended their sense of propriety. This is a pretty small fraction of the 95 million images that post to Instagram every day.

Criticism of Fear Mongering Headlines

One of the themes that seems to disturb O’Connor et al is the criticism of “fear mongering headlines.” They called out one dietitian for saying that “the evidence doesn’t suggest there’s a reason for concern” about aspartame. But O’Connor et al did not mention that this is a view FDA scientists support. When sensational headlines about aspartame surfaced recently, the agency released a statement saying:

“Aspartame is one of the most studied food additives in the human food supply. FDA scientists do not have safety concerns when aspartame is used under the approved conditions.”

It’s possible that O’Connor took offense from these comments because he is the author of some of those fear mongering stories. A recent example ran under a headline saying that “fake sugars sneak into foods and disrupt metabolic health.”

As we pointed out at the time, such stories make great clickbait, but they confuse scientific speculation with facts to promote a conspiracy narrative.

Full Disclosure

Whether one is writing clickbait stories to sell advertising and subscriptions for the Washington Post or making money from paid posts for people selling food, commercial interests are clearly in play. The journalist who is pushing a sweetness is toxic narrative is working to make a name for himself. A dietitian pushing back on that narrative is promoting their own image in social media. Both of them are trying to make a living.

The Post found paid placements for which dietitians did not disclose the sponsorship. Without a doubt, those dietitians made a mistake with their lack of disclosure. When the Post publishes clickbait headlines, it should be clear to all that their motive is to attract readers and sell advertising. Likewise, when social media influencers are selling an idea or a product, it should be equally clear if money is part of the motivation.

One thing is unmistakable, though. Neither clickbait headlines nor Instagram posts are very reliable sources for sound nutrition advice.

Click here for the story from the Post that inspired all of this and here for more on problems with the sugar as toxic narrative.

Philip Johnson Glass House, photograph by Ninad Garware, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

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September 18, 2023

One Response to “Clickbait Journalists versus Clickbait Nutrition Influencers”

  1. September 18, 2023 at 3:01 pm, Neva Cochran said:

    Thanks so much, Ted. You are always the voice of common sense and science!!