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Survey Says

by Neena Louise

There's been an explosion of "a new survey suggests" scare-mongering on television lately. Every single day, a new survey brings doom and gloom. However, many of these surveys contradict what a "new" survey had "suggested" the week before (sometimes the DAY before), and it started me wondering: Where do these surveys come from? You rarely hear the sources of these alleged ground-breaking surveys and if you do, the specific study is very rarely quoted, nor are you informed whether it is a scientific survey or merely an informal poll. Considering television is out for sensationalism rather than the public good, I find these survey proclamations suspect and can't help but wonder just how sound the science behind the headline is.

The latest is that fat people are something like 40% more likely to develop cancer. I found this a startling statement and did some digging. Turns out, this statistic is based on a 9-year-old study where weight was the only factor studied in cancer rates. It made me wonder how much of this supposed cancer risk increase was based on a poor diet (since the obese tend not to eat healthily) rather than weight. I know lots of fat people that regularly exercise and eat healthy (though, perhaps, too much) food. I know lots of thin people that eat nothing but junk and never exercise. Were these factors even considered in the study? And who funded this study? And who compiled the data? And why did it get no media attention 9 years ago when it was first published if it was such an important issue? And where did the weight statistics come from? From telephone surveys? How many people do you know that, although they are at a perfectly "normal" weight, insist they are 10 pounds overweight? I now have more questions than answers and that's from only one survey.

I was stunned to see a 20/20 episode totally dedicated to the issue of television reporting and all the misinformation it spews to the gullible public. Everything I always knew to be true was confirmed: Television news is often inaccurate. 20/20 reporter John Stossel should be commended for putting himself out there, crying "mea culpa" when he admitted how many inaccurate stories he, himself, had reported. Doubly admirable when he proceeded to correct many other less-than-accurate news pieces. Stossel also explained why this happens and its simplicity is beautiful: TV is a business and it needs ratings to survive; the more exploitive the story, the more people watch, the better the ratings. The line between truth and fiction gets fuzzier in the quest for ratings and using a survey that "maybe, might, could, perhaps" suggest some frightening statistic is the easiest way to blur that line.

It's very easy to manipulate survey data to fit whatever point you'd like to make. And to acquire survey data, all one has to do is get on the phone, ask one question, compile the answers and claim "a new survey suggests...". There's something everyone needs to keep in mind: "a survey suggests" is just that: a suggestion. A hint. A nuance. A perhaps. It is not FACT. Television news is out for ratings and exploitation, not public good. We are never told how the survey (and/or study) results were arrived at, nor are we are ever informed about how sound the science is behind these surveys/studies, nor does the media generally bother to investigate these surveys/studies. We should not, therefore, form any kind of opinion based solely on what some sensationalistic yellow journalistic survey-quoting news piece has to say. After all, an attitude adopted from vague survey references will be almost impossible to change once it hardens into an opinion - whether or not the truth ever becomes known.

We really must stop being so gullible.
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