Video games,rickets,newspapers and headline writers

Professor Simon Pearce Dr Tim Cheetham published an fascinating clinical review in the British Medical Journal earlier this month. Their research, a collaboration between Newcastle University and Newcastle NHS Foundation Hospital, led the two respected academics to conclude that Vitamin D should be added to milk and other food products, in a bid to halt a rise in the number of children suffering from rickets. Here’s the press release from Newcastle University that highlights their research.

After reading the press release, a startling fact jumped off the page:

“Half of all adults in the UK have Vitamin D deficiency in the winter and spring, and one in six have severe deficiency. This is worse in northern regions and could be part of the reason for the health gap between the north and south.

“And the condition has been linked to cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, several cancers, and autoimmune conditions as well as osteomalacia, which is the painful manifestation of soft bones in adults.”

I discovered their research after reading lurid headlines in the Metro Newspaper last week. The front page splash carried the headline “Video gaming leads to a surge in rickets”. The headline was so obviously misleading that I knew it would irritate the army of video game players who form Gamers’ Voice, the group we established just before Christmas.

Even the respected correspondent in the Times, David Rose, had to suffer the indignity of the headline “TV and computer games blamed for rickets” ITN (yes, ITN) ran the story “Experts say gaming leads to a rise in rickets”.  Well done to the one media outlet I could find  thatwrote the headline: “50% of UK Vitamin D deficient”

After consulting members of Gamers’ Voice, I emailed Professor Pearce:

“I read the front page of the Metro this morning with interest. Am I right in thinking that you have written a report that links video games to rickets? Is it possible to send me details?”

He was candid about how the story was portrayed in some newspapers and online outlets:

“No we really didn’t do a study to show that, or say that Gaming causes rickets. It was a classic piece of dodgy lazy journalism, taking 3 words out of PA’s hyped-up version of our press release.”

The Press Association release that I assume he’s referring to, does not mention video games, though there is a reference to computers.

By chance, I’d met the amiable Nicholas Lovell at a video games industry conference on the day the story was published. He was similarly irritated by the misleading headlines and had contacted the academics as well. Nicholas is not a journalist. He’s an analyst. Still, he did fair reporting a favour last week.

So, once again video games get a kicking in the press based on an untruth. And the poor health academics who are trying to get their important research across to policy makers have their work undermined by nonsensical headlines. Now that I’ve read the research and talked to Professor Pearce, I feel I have a duty to help them get their message across.

I’m going to table this motion later today:

This House notes with concern the recent clinical review by Cheetham and Pearce in the British Medical Journal, “Diagnosis and management of vitamin D deficiency” that shows an increase of rickets amongst children in the UK; further notes that this was reported in many newspapers as being linked to the growth of video games and that the newspaper “Metro” published the front page headline “Video gaming leads to a surge in rickets”; understands that half of all adults in the UK have Vitamin D deficiency in the winter and spring, and one in six have severe deficiency and the condition has been linked to cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, several cancers, and autoimmune conditions as well as osteomalacia; understands that it has been known since 1922 that rickets and osteomalacia are caused by a deficiency of Vitamin D in the diet and inadequate  exposure to sunlight; and therefore realises that video games do not, in fact, cause the disease; believes that the solution to combatting rickets is cheap and simple; calls on the government to examine the case for Vitamin D supplementation in food and for parents to encourage their children run around more.”

I’m also going to quiz Department for Health Ministers to see what work they’re doing in this area.

Finally, if you’re a gamer, why not let Metro know about the research.

10 comments ↓

#1 Ren Reynolds on 01.25.10 at 11:19 am

I’ll take a look at the source documents and compile a Press Complaints Commission submission should the facts meet the PCC requirements for a complaint within their remit.

I recently mounted a successful PCC challenge to the Daily Telegraph headline: “Average age of adult computer game addicts is 35, US study shows” which was false on several ground, the story of that an computer games coverage generally can be found here:

http://terranova.blogs.com/terra_nova/2009/09/me-vs-the-daily-telegraph-.html

ren

#2 Nicholas Lovell on 01.25.10 at 11:58 am

Thanks for the link Tom, and well done for raising an important public health issue that has been obscured by misleading headlines.

And I’m not sure I’ve been called “amiable” before :-)

#3 psmith, journalist › links for 2010-01-25 on 01.25.10 at 12:05 pm

[...] Video Games and rickets: Metro headline is misleading | Tom Watson MP Do video games cause ricketts? Newspapers say yes. But why not ask the scientists that did the study: “No we really didn’t do a study to show that, or say that Gaming causes rickets. It was a classic piece of dodgy lazy journalism, taking 3 words out of PA’s hyped-up version of our press release.” (tags: newspapers games gaming badscience) [...]

#4 ren reynolds on 01.25.10 at 2:06 pm

I’ve now read the Press Release (http://www.ncl.ac.uk/press.office/press.release/item/experts-call-for-action-to-halt-rise-in-rickets) and the original research. From this it seems to me that is it difficult to blame the Metro too much.

While their reporting, like many, fails to identify the underlying causal relationship that means that kids stay in more (it’s not because of computer games but because of a range of factors that mean that adults are restricting children’s movement – in part this is due to the press, hence it is under reported).

Having said this, the Metro does accurately report the press release put out by Newcastle University. In this release the sciences imply to the point that a casual reader would take that they asset a relationship between computer games and rickets. However their research does not back this up.

You report that Professor Pearce says “It was a classic piece of dodgy lazy journalism, taking 3 words out of PA’s hyped-up version of our press release.” This is not true (if ‘our press release means the university one). If you look at the University press release it is reported accurately and the quotes are not taken selectively or out of context.

So – are the scientists denying that quotes in the Press Release are untrue? If so, they need to state this, university needs to retract it and questions need to be asked of the University.

If the scientists stand by the quotes then (a) they should have expected the headlines, (b) what evidence do they have to back them up as the quotes are not supported by the research?

I see no grounds for a PCC complaint on the basis of the documentation.

#5 » Blog Archive on 01.25.10 at 3:49 pm

[...] Video games,rickets,newspapers and headline writers (tom-watson.co.uk) [...]

#6 London Paper Shockingly Says Gaming Leads to “Shocking” Rise in Rickets - Negative Gamer on 01.25.10 at 5:36 pm

[...] Tom Watson MP spoke to the doctor in charge of the study who called the article in the Metro who said it was “a classic piece of dodgy [...]

#7 Science calls stories about gaming and rickets ‘lazy’ | PLAY Magazine on 01.26.10 at 12:52 pm

[...] a response. Every UK gamer’s favourite Member of Parliament (an avid Play reader, so he told us), Tom Watson, contacted the mad scientists too and got an answer from Dr Simon Pearce, who seems to be the [...]

#8 aion database on 01.27.10 at 1:07 am

“Experts say gaming leads to a rise in rickets.” How the hell did they come up with this conclusion? And what’s their basis for this? Did these “experts” actually performed intensive research before giving this negative statement about video games?

#9 Chris White on 02.12.10 at 12:38 am

First off, I applaud you for giving a voice to the gaming community. It is all too easy to simply ignore what has always been deemed a ‘silly hobby’ by many.

The problem with this article is not the obvious witch-hunt mentality, but the fact that the journalist involved skimmed the release and added his opinion without actually doing any research. The Metro has an OTS of over 3 million, surely someone should have thought to question this? It seems that for all the complaining journalists do in regards to irrelevant PR contact, they’re all to happy to take press releases and manipulate them to the point of irrelevance themselves.

The only thing we as gamers can do is once again ride the storm, persevering until attitudes change enough that unreasonable claims and absurd campaigns are no longer the norm – Modern Warfare and rickets being just two of the latest in a LONG line.

#10 Prolonged Gaming Blamed For Rickets Rise on 02.28.10 at 6:27 pm

[...] also replied to MP Watson, writing, “No we really didn’t do a study to show that, or say that Gaming causes rickets. It [...]

Leave a Comment

Protected with IP Blacklist CloudIP Blacklist Cloud