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How We Got Here: The Mainstream Media and UsHow We Got Here: The Mainstream Media and Us

Suzanne Shelton

September 16, 2011

2 Min Read
How We Got Here: The Mainstream Media and Us

We’ve all noticed that mainstream media coverage of dietary supplements is largely negative, misinformed, and slanted.  It was not always like this. As someone handling public relations and publicity in the natural products industry for over 20 years, it’s been interesting (and aggravating) to watch the evolution. While I used to regularly place stories in newspapers and on TV, these days I protect my clients from that gamble. In my experience, the risk of being linked to words like “unregulated” “untested,” and ‘snake oil” is just too great.

Fifteen years ago when a clinical study was published indicating that ginkgo could slow the progression of Alzheimer’s the media coverage was overwhelmingly positive. I was very busy making sure all the major media outlets knew that my client’s product was the one used in the study. The media often positioned supplements as safer alternatives to conventional medical care. Many, many consumers responded by incorporating herbs and vitamins into their lifestyles. 

A decade ago there was a notable shift in the tone of media coverage. The word "unregulated" started creeping into articles about supplements, and the topic of ephedra in particular generated increasingly cautionary articles. It’s been downhill ever since. Briefly, here’s what happened:

  • Reporters like new and different. Fifteen years ago we were the new alternative to old school healthcare.

  • Our industry didn’t follow the initial science with more good science. A few companies’ spokespersons had questionable credentials. One company did a big satellite media tour with a Dr. Expert. It turned out his doctorate was in history. Not cool.

  • Media regurgitates whatever the New York Times writes. NYT is so entrenched in their anti-supplement bias that it continued calling us "unregulated" for years after industry representatives sat down with them to explain supplement regulation in detail.

  • Our wisest industry leaders warned after DSHEA was passed that we had to be a responsible industry. Not everyone listened. Ephedra and caffeine in high doses? How stupid was that? “Eat pizza and loose weight while you sleep” ads, drug and disease claims, and economic adulteration on the part of a few have made us all vulnerable.

  • We didn’t address media inaccuracies head on when it all started, so "unregulated" was what every reporter wrote for a decade. It’s become a "fact."

Today we can communicate with the public very effectively via the internet, so news coverage is far less important except in one extremely important way: calls for more strict regulation are fueled by negative media coverage. And that’s a problem. 

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