Stop with the Clickbait, You So-Called Muckrakers

by Matthew Moore

Mother Jones has done it again. The news organization took an informative and well-researched nutrition-based article and buried its message with a sensationalist, clickbait-style social media post more effective at ruffling feathers than fostering dialogue. Last month, Kiera Butler examined the hype surrounding bone broth, and it was tweeted from the official Mother Jones account imploring people to “Stop drinking bone broth, you stupid yuppies.”

It’s no question that the claims made about bone broth are sketchy at best as The Sprout covered earlier this year. I was amused when I saw that Osteobroth was an exhibitor at this year’s Philadelphia Marathon (tip: broth is a vile post-marathon beverage). However, the Mother Jones tweet is more likely to make bone broth advocates defensive and agitated instead of curious about learning the facts behind it.

If you think the tweet sounds familiar, you’re not wrong. Last July, Tom Philpott’s critique of almond milk was published under the headline “Lay Off the Almond Milk, You Ignorant Hipsters.” While he later revealed that his editors came up with the headline, he admitted they did so with the intent of maximizing web traffic.

Not only did he agree to the headline, it succeeded. Readers rushed to defend almond milk, disassociate themselves from the “hipster” label, and rebuke the implication they were ignorant. Such inflammatory language overshadowed Philpott’s legitimate points.

The unfortunate part of all this is that Butler and Philpott are excellent writers, but these recent tweets and headlines distract from the facts about highly questionable food trends. The public relies on nutrition communicators to offer educational, constructive discourse on nutrition and the national food system. Mother Jones is failing both the public and its writers.

To be clear, Mother Jones is an extremely important journalistic presence. It was responsible for capturing Mitt Romney’s infamous “47%” video that impacted the 2012 presidential election. It offers a critical progressive voice in a field being overtaken by incendiary soundbites from the likes of CNN and Fox News. It prides itself on its muckraking journalism, so why is it giving into the trend of BuzzFeed-worthy headlines?

Potentially more concerning is this phenomenon creeping into more mainstream media outlets that reach more readers curious about nutrition. In her August “Unearthed” column, Tamar Haspel struck readers’ nerves with her piece “Why salad is so overrated” in which she claimed “it occupies precious crop acreage, requires fossil fuels to be shipped, refrigerated, around the world, and adds nothing but crunch to the plate.”

The headline is certainly provocative and elicited strong responses in both support and opposition from outlets including Salon, Slate, The Guardian, and Vice. Two days later, Philpott chimed in with an article headlined “Salad Seems Really Virtuous, Right? It’s Not.” and further stoked the flames. Unfortunately the resulting “salad war” did not spawn much constructive dialogue about the food system.

According to The Washington Post, Haspel’s column is supposed “to cut through divisive food-policy debates and illuminate the facts and the middle ground.” Haspel usually tackles hot-button topics like GMOs, corn, and soda taxes, and typically distills the science and rhetoric on both sides into an objective, easy-to-understand format for her readers. She gave two excellent talks last year at Friedman: one in Tim Griffin’s Fundamentals of U.S. Agriculture class and another as part of the weekly seminar series.

However, a statement such as “skip the salad” in her August column does not come across as middle ground. Instead, it is a gross oversimplification and alarming argument to make in the midst of the oft-discussed obesity crisis. In fact, many common salad ingredients are listed on ChooseMyPlate.gov as vegetables that Americans should be eating every day. In essence, her declaration to “skip the salad” can be interpreted as being in conflict with recommendations based on the established Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Butler, Philpott, and Haspel are respected journalists covering topics related to nutrition and the food system. If possible, they should do more to prevent social media, headlines, or their own personal biases to distract from legitimate content. This is also something we strive for at The Sprout and would love to discuss further with readers about how we can continue to improve and contribute to the nutrition communication space.

Matt Moore is a second-year AFE student who is sad the CHIKARA finale won’t be available on iPPV this year. He was a Mother Jones subscriber until it didn’t fit his AmeriCorps or grad school budget.

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