Media coverage fell short on Stanford's report minimizing the health impact of organic food. That seems to be a pattern when it comes to organic food.
Bison burgers are mighty good, let me tell you. I always choose 'em over regular hamburgers, and that's only a bit because in my childhood I was at home where the buffalo roam. Mainly I like the fact that most of the bison you buy in supermarkets here is raised on organic, hormone-free diets. Why, it's practically health food.
Indeed, it seems I'm part of a trend: Health-conscious Americans pushed up sales of organic food by more than 9 percent last year, and while organic food still comprises less than 5 percent of overall American food sales, analysts say that organics, though more expensive, are a growth market.
But maybe I'm a chump. A recent news-service story trumpeted this headline over a story about Stanford University research: "Organic food no healthier than non-organic: study." News outlets worldwide carried similar stories.
If there's no health benefit to eating expensive blueberries grown without pesticides and meats from livestock raised without extra hormone shots, why wouldn't I save money and go back to the stuff that has been sprayed and drug-injected?
It turns out that the full story is more complex than that original headline suggested -- and that's not unusual when journalists report on scientific studies and medical research.
In fact, reporting on research in the popular press is so fraught with hazards that there are careers now in monitoring how the media handle health and science news.
The Stanford research was a review of more than 200 other studies, mostly comparing nutrient and contaminant levels in organic and conventional foods. Those studies found that organic food isn't more nutritious and that exposure to pesticides from nonorganic food is only slightly higher, but well within safety limits. Nor was it more often contaminated. That's what most of the stories focused on, reviewers found.
Studies also found that when bacteria was discovered in nonorganic meats, there was a 33 percent higher risk of it being resistant to multiple antibiotics.
And the studies didn't explore the effects of pesticides on the general environment, nor whether the routine use of antibiotics increases the risk of creating drug-resistant bacteria.
That is, the rise of organic food may be better for Americans' health in the long run, or even in the short run in the rare instances when food is contaminated.
There are lots of typical problems in news reporting on science. Often reports seem not to differentiate between association and causation. That is, just because a bunch of people near an industrial site have an illness, it doesn't mean the site is causing the illness.
And many stories use relative data rather than absolute: If taking a pill reduces the risk of a disease by 50 percent, that's worth noting, but if the disease occurs in only 0.05 percent of the population, the risk reduction may not be worth the expense.
And in discussing scientific disputes, we often fall prey to one of the great perils of journalism -- false balance. If some dingbat asserts that the Earth is flat, we wouldn't insert that claim into a story about a satellite orbiting the planet, but we routinely give overly generous coverage to some assertions contrary to fact.
Earlier this summer, legislators in North Carolina drew mockery around the country when they came close to passing a bill that would have outlawed preparations for the rise in sea levels that scientists project.
Many reporters, media watchdogs found, gave developers -- who were fighting against limits on shoreline development -- a voice in their stories equal to that of scientists' studies that point to a sea-level rise along the North Carolina coast of at least 39 inches by 2100.
In that case, as is often true, balance in news reporting amounted to bias. Thoughtful reporting on science, I'm sorry to say, is too often the way I like my bison steak: rare. Which I'm sticking with, by the way, based on a full reading of that study.