Friday, April 13, 2012

Why I'm Not Renewing my NPR Membership

Dear NPR:

I am a long-time listener.  Last year I became a member for the first time.  This year I will not be renewing my membership.

This was a difficult decision for me because I love 90% of NPR programming.  It is thoughtful, insightful and entertaining, and I don't listen to any other radio station.

But in the last year, I have seen an alarming downhill trend in the quality of fact-checking in your stories regarding obesity, and a distinct slant against fat people in your health reporting.

Recently there has been a lot of media attention on obesity because it is a currently popular trend.  Many studies are pouring out of universities with poor methodology and low statistical significance, but if they attach the magic word "obesity" to the study they are not only funded, but seized upon as confirmation by the media. 

The most recent example, and the one that cemented the decision for me to cancel my membership, was the report linking autism and obesity.  The "health reporter" who took this up clearly knows nothing about science.  He did not consider the extremely shaky methodology (i.e. conflating three distinct bodily and metabolic states with no separate controls that would rule out specific factors, relatively small sample size, dubious self-report methods that relied entirely on the mother's memory of their health from the years before their child's birth, and failure to establish a causal relationship).  Instead, the reporter himself discussed the results as if the two metabolic conditions were interchangeable with high body weight (not true) and over-simplified the findings to, essentially, that fat women are more likely to have autistic children.

Anyone with basic college level science courses and some analytical thinking could have seen that this was not worth reporting on. 

A previous report on the new weight-loss drug pending approval from the F.D.A. suggested that the extremely dangerous side effects of the drug were fully justified by a temporary 10 pound weight loss. 

Another report spoke about how partial stomach amputation or constriction could cure diabetes (without doing the basic research that would have told the reporter that the metabolic effects of weight loss surgery are temporary, and usually return by the 5th year.)  His source was a weight-loss surgeon who makes a living by convincing people to do the procedure.

This poor reporting on health doesn't just misinform the public.  It actively hurts people.  Fat people are already facing severe health and social discrimination due to their weight.  For many personal stories of medical discrimination against fat people, see the blog "First Do No Harm"  ( because it expresses the problem better than statistics could.  Fat people are denied jobs, housing, health care, and have even had their children taken from the home. 

When you report a flimsy college study that claims fat women produce autistic children, it is one more excuse for insurance companies to deny coverage, fertility clinics to deny treatment, and doctors to blame the mother for a primarily hereditary disease.  NPR has such a reputation for fair, quality reporting that the harm you do with faulty reporting is greater than you would think.  People accept what you say, and that means they accept that fat people like me are inherently sick, damaged and less than human, simply because our bodies are not shaped like the cultural ideal.

Thank you for your time, and I hope that if the quality of your health reporting does improve, and I feel that I can safely listen without being repeatedly told that I am a disease to be cured, I will become a supporter again.

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