I recently read an online article in the Telegraph Lifestyle Women section titled;
"Ditch those heart-thumping HIIT sessions: low intensity exercise is the best way to work out".
Now, as someone who advocates and participates in High Intensity Interval Training sessions (HIIT), as well as doing regular Low Intensity Steady State (LISS) exercise and knows a thing or two about fitness, I was interested to hear what the author had to say.
Unfortunately the article, as is the case with most health & fitness related editorial, was nothing more than a non informative puff piece deriding HIIT and lacking any objective discussion on the subject.
I might do a critique on the article itself in a separate post but at this juncture, given that I think the article is typical of the way health and fitness is written about these days, I thought I'd give you my thoughts on the current state of health and fitness journalism.
Journalism in the present tense
In the days before the internet, magazine journalists were more often than not specialist reporters working in a particular area or at least hacks who'd spent enough time reporting in a particular field to know a bit about what they writing. Today it's slightly different. In these days where the internet dominates news consumption, your average journalist is a completely different beast and specialist journalists are particularly rare.
In the 21st century the newswire dominates the media. In the UK this is the Press Association. They write, send and distribute articles to media outlets, doing the job of reporters but often putting no context to stories or providing any critical analysis. This would be fine if the journalists that received the newswire reports did some research themselves and added this but unfortunately this usually isn't the case. In fact you'll often find that articles are just copied verbatim from the newswire and published, meaning the same article can often be found word for word on different news websites.
Jack of all trades, master of none.
The modern journalist is now a jack of all trades, that's to say they tend to be general journalists employed to write on a variety of subjects. This make perfect sense in the cut throat business of modern news media, which is no longer the bastion of the printed medium and where clicks on web pages are a hugely important source of income. Why would a media company employ a specialist health & fitness writer when they can get a general journalist to include health & fitness in their remit along with what ever else they want them to write about. Fewer journalists writing about a variety of stuff equals reduced overheads and increased profit.
This leads to journalists that have less time to check the facts, nuances and complexities of what they are writing about and rarely have any expertise at all. A lot of journalists who write about science don't have a science back ground so it's not hard to believe that those who write about fitness have little or no understanding of what they write about. Most journalists today are just employed to churn out copy and a lot of it.
Quantity over quality
The author of the article in question is a good example. From the first paragraph of the article it is obvious she has some interest in fitness having been training for a marathon. But what other expertise does she have?
A quick look on the website journalisted.com is an eye opener. Between April 2016 and January 2017 she wrote 306 articles. That's about one a day (in a 7 day week!) give or take and in some months she wrote on average more than one a day! Talk about quantity over quality! And what about the subject matter? Here're a few examples;
Andy Murray's dog is to publish a book.....
Britain's loudest snorer reveals a nose clip for Olympic cyclists has helped reduce her 111 decibel sounds.
Hair extension addict who loves to flaunt her curves in VERY revealing outfits gets a makeunder.....
I'm not kidding!! This is typical of what the author was writing about over the period described. So why on earth should you take anything she writes about health and fitness with anything other than a large pinch of salt.
But how is anyone to know this and to be honest who apart from me really cares?
The majority of people who read about health and fitness have no expertise in the subject. They just read the articles believing that the content has value and has been written by someone who knows what they're talking about. They'll then often disseminate the information as fact. If I had a pound for every time I heard 'I read that this type of exercise burns fat the fastest' I'd be a rich man. ('Fat Burning' as you may have guessed is somewhat of an obsession with writers of health & fitness articles)
Advertising disguised as editorial and the 4th paragraph rule
Another thing to understand about health and fitness journalism is that what you're reading is often nothing more than direct advertising or PR for company's. How surreptitious this is varies but it's fairly easy to spot either way.
To illustrate; Whilst writing this post I picked up my phone and opened the Google news app. After a quick scroll down the 'Physical Exercise' section I noticed a load articles about a new class called Nappercise. This apparently involves going to sleep for 45minutes!! (No joke, this is a real thing!!)
Anyway..... These articles came from an eclectic mix of sources including RT (Russia Today), Mens Health, Allure, The Huffington Post, Vice, Forbes and the Independent. After a quick read it was apparent that the source of the article and the class was David Lloyd gyms. In one of the articles they actually mentioned this in the title but in the others it was mentioned within the first few paragraphs.
This is a great example of both newswire journalism and advertorial but for your average reader it would appear to be just an article about a class. David Lloyd, one of the biggest health club chains in the UK, obviously has a great PR department. A quick release of information about a quirky new class on the newswire and their name appears on some of the internets biggest news sources. I bet you it didn't cost them a bean either!
This is of course savvy business and everyone's a winner. Free advertising for David Lloyd and an easy story for the journalist. But for the health and fitness consumer it can be difficult to distinguish between editorial, which as I've explained is generally of poor quality anyway and advertorial which is nothing more than marketing.
So how can you differentiate between editorial and advertorial?
As a general rule of thumb, if a company's name appears in the first four paragraphs of an article you can be sure that it's not an objective piece (and I use this term loosely). It's more than likely just an advert.
The sad thing is that the pressure on modern journalists to churn out copy means that this sort of thing is quite common.
Personally I wouldn't bother reading about fitness from any news outlet. If you do, be skeptical about what you're reading and take the content with a pinch of salt.
I would even be wary of reading about fitness on dedicated fitness websites as even these are a mine field of misinformation. Some are very good but some are just awful and again it's difficult for the average fitness consumer to separate the wheat from the chaff. However with a little effort you can.
At the very least you should check the credentials of the person writing the article you're reading. They should ideally have some qualifications in a field relevant to the subject. While this by no means guarantees quality it does at least let you know they might have some knowledge of what they're writing about.
Never take one article as a definitive piece on a topic. Read around the subject and see what other experts think. If there seems to be a consensus then you can be more confident about what you're reading.
Use the 4th paragraph rule. If the name of a company appears in the first 4 paragraphs, it's more than likely an advert and of minimal educational value.
And finally, remember, always, let the reader beware.
Be skeptical everyone ;-)
How PR came to rule modern journalism. A talk by Malcom Marshal, The Mersey Side Skeptics. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nT7ulnOKvJU&t=1417s
Project Report- The Quality and Independence of British Journalism. Tracking the changes over 20 years . CARDIF UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF JOURNALISM, MEDIA AND CULTRAL STUDIES 2008.