Monday, October 09, 2006

...but sometimes journalists get it wrong

As I said last time, we like journalists. They give the baby food issue coverage in a variety of ways.

But sometimes things can go a little awry. An example came up last Friday, which prompted me to write these two pieces. It began with an article in a Canadian news magazine which I forwarded to the Nestlé boycott yahoo discussion group. It explained how Nestlé was found giving away "free Baby Einstein and Disney DVDs, free rice-cereal samples, free infant formula samples, and a send-away card for a free diaper bag, a baby-magazine subscription, and more formula" at a baby care exhibition in Canada. This was contrasted with the difficulty the breastfeeding support groups, without any freebies on offer, had in enticing mothers to come to their meetings. Our Canadian partner, INFACT Canada, was mentioned in the article, though the name of the Director was given incorrectly. And there was a strange comment in the article, apparently coming from an official report, saying that a third of mothers could not breastfeed for health reasons. Knowing that virtually all mothers breastfeed in countries where there is support for breastfeeding and company promotion has been stopped I went looking for the original report (we are quite pernickety about such things). This showed there was a misunderstanding of the findings. Some mothers reported lack of milk and obviously experienced genuine difficulties, but not because there was a medical problem making breastfeeding impossible. The report concluded: "The relatively low percentage of Canadian mothers whose breastfeeding practices matched the current recommendations is a challenge for public health. The sharp drop in breastfeeding within a few weeks of leaving hospital suggests a lack of reinforcement in the family or community. A number of studies have called on health care professionals to provide consistent, clear information about breastfeeding and support throughout pregnancy, childbirth and the postpartum period." Without support mothers with difficulties find it hard to overcome them and are preyed on by the baby food companies with their 'carelines', advice websites and free gifts. Clearly it is not only some mothers who believe they cannot produce milk - there are journalists too. Perhaps because of their own bad experience or that of a friend or neighbour.

My worst memory of a journalist getting the wrong end of the stick came when I briefed the health correspondent of a national daily newspaper on the advice on infant feeding for mothers who might be infected with HIV. I referred to the recommendations the World Health Assembly adopted after much research and debate. This sets the policy of the World Health Organisation (WHO). The recommendation is: "when replacement feeding is acceptable, feasible, affordable, sustainable and safe, avoidance of all breastfeeding by HIV-positive women is recommended; otherwise, exclusive breastfeeding is recommended during the first months of life; and that those who choose other options should be encouraged to use them free from commercial influences." I won't go into all the reasons for this advice here (see below), but I explained them to the journalist. The article he wrote was along the lines of Baby Milk Action has this strange proposal, but WHO is unconvinced and experts argue 'exclusive breastfeeding is impractical in Africa, where few women produce enough breast milk to sustain a baby.'

The newspaper later printed letters from experts pointing out the errors in the article. But Baby Milk Action's telephone calls were not answered and our letter explaining that we had set out WHO policy, not invented our own proposals as the article suggested, was not published.

As you can see, it still rankles when I think of it. But the point is to learn from experience. I very quickly added a page on HIV to the Baby Milk Action website with quotes from the relevant World Health Assembly documents and linked to them. Now I can refer journalists there. In fact, the site is a treasure trove full of such gems. See the Your Questions Answered section for some of the key ones.

Another top tip is if you are going to be quoted, ask the journalist to wait for this to be sent in writing if there is time. When it is on the radio, however, that's another story...

No comments: