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New Guidelines Recognize Context As Key to Public Understanding

Issue March/April 1998

LINK (PDF)Improving Public Understanding: Guidelines for Communicating Emerging Science on Nutrition, Food Safety, and Health

"I think what the public wants is for us to be honest with each study as it comes along and try to put it into perspective, but keep reminding people that it's the totality of evidence as it unfolds that warrants their attention."
-- Timothy Johnson, M.D., M.P.H.,
Medical Editor, ABC News

For as long as diet books continue to be best-sellers and precious front-page space is given to food headlines, there can be no doubt that the public remains intrigued about nutrition, food safety and health.

Despite an abundance of information, however, better public understanding has not always resulted, and many consumers remain confused. New guidelines published recently in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (JNCI) and highlighted in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) seek to show how food-related science can be effectively communicated in ways that enable public understanding while recognizing and meeting the objectives and needs of the communicators.

Based on a consensus recommendation of an advisory group of experts convened by the Harvard School of Public Health and the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation, Improving Public Understanding: Guidelines for Communicating Emerging Science on Nutrition, Food Safety, and Health, aims to help clarify the communication of emerging scientific information. The Guidelines pertain especially to information that might appear to contradict previous knowledge and thus confuse the public. The advisory group included key opinion leaders reflecting the diversity of players throughout the communications chain from science to the public.

Advisory Group:
Marcia Angell, M.D.
The New England Journal of Medicine
Mary Ann Howkins
David Rosenthal, M.D.
American Cancer Society/ Harvard University Health Services

Elaine Auld, M.P.H.
Society for Public Health Education

Timothy Johnson, M.D., M.P.H. ABC News Sylvia Rowe
IFIC Foundation
David Baron
National Public Radio
George Lundberg, M.D.
The Journal of the American Medical Association
Walter Willett, M.D., Dr.P.H.
Harvard School of Public Health
Julianne Chappell
Journal of the National Cancer Institute
Alison Esser
IFIC Foundation
Margaret Winker, M.D.
The Journal of the American Medical Association
Beverly Freeman
Harvard School of Public Health
Michael Mudd
Kraft Foods
Mary Winston, Ed.D.
American Heart Association
Harvey V. Fineberg, M.D., Ph.D., M.P.H.
Harvard School of Public Health
Richard Nelson
Jeanne Goldberg, Ph.D., R.D.
Tufts University School of Nutrition Science & Policy
Tom Paulson
Seattle Post-Intelligencer

These "guiding principles" also reflect contributions from more than 70 nutrition researchers, food scientists, journal editors, university press officers, broadcast and print reporters, consumer groups, and food industry executives who participated in eight roundtables around the country following the initial advisory group meeting. The purpose of the roundtables was to respond to the concept of guiding principles and to explore possible content and parameters. "To get a true reading on the guidelines concept, we felt it was vital to reach out to opinion leaders around the country. We were delighted that the concept was almost universally well received. Input from the roundtable participants was extremely valuable in identifying and outlining the content," explained IFIC Foundation president, Sylvia Rowe.

Before a new study reaches the public, it makes several stops along the communications chain. The various players and groups in the communications process are acknowledged in the Guidelines, which are presented in several groupings. First, there are general guidelines relevant for all communicators, regardless of professional background. They are followed by more specific sets of guidelines tailored for player groups in the communications chain: scientists, journal editors, journalists, and industry, consumer and interest groups. "It's critical for everyone to accept responsibility for their part," acknowledged Margaret Winker, M.D., senior editor of JAMA and an advisory group participant.

Although the communication of new information about food, nutrition and health usually begins with scientists and medical journals and often involves public information officers and interest groups, it is the news media who are the highly visible messengers of this information. Hence, the media are often blamed for making science seem revolutionary rather than evolutionary and are frequently held responsible for consumer confusion. Indeed, in a 1997 National Health Council survey, 68 percent of consumers agreed with the statement, "When reporting medical and health news, the media often contradict themselves, so I don't know what to believe."

But, the final news report is just the last chapter of the whole communications story. How emerging science is communicated can have powerful effects on the public's understanding, on its behavior and, ultimately, on its well being. The advisory group acknowledged that reporting single studies can often mislead. "There is an unrealistic expectation on the part of the public that the most recent study demolishes all previous findings and is the current standard of truth," said Harvey V. Fineberg, M.D., Ph.D., M.P.H., provost of Harvard University and former Dean of the School of Public Health.

Single studies and findings presented at scientific meetings usually require additional context and background in order for the average person to use the information. Advisory group participant and ABC-TV's Dr. Timothy Johnson noted, "Nutrition information is the most vulnerable to misinterpretation. Of critical importance is the difference between absolute and relative risk."

The Guidelines are intended to help ensure that sound science and improved public understanding are the ultimate guides to what is communicated. With this in mind, key questions are suggested that communicators can ask themselves and others to identify which specific answers will best inform the public. "There is no expectation that every news story will include all or most of the suggested information," clarified Fineberg. "Instead, these guidelines can help communicators focus on the most vital information the public should have in order to form the most useful net impression of a particular study's findings."

Improving Public Understanding: Guidelines for Communicating Emerging Science on Nutrition, Food Safety, and Health was first published by the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (February 4, 1998, Volume 90, Number 3, Pages 194-199). A complete copy of the Guidelines can be accessed on IFIC Foundation Online here. JNCI and JAMA reprints are available on request, and a Guidelines booklet can be ordered online via our publications order form.

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