Journalism and chocolate: tasty lies

Chocolate
The Indian Nectar or a Discourse concerning Chocolate… by Henry Stubbe. Published: London 1662. Credit: Wellcome Library Catalogue.

I’ve seen more than one friend recently use social media to extol the virtues of chocolate as a weight-loss aid. Maybe some of your friends have too.

And why not – earlier this year a team of German researchers found that people on a low-carb diet lost weight 10 percent faster if they ate a chocolate bar every day. It made the front pages of newspapers around the world and even featured on one of our morning talk shows.

Of course, the sceptical among us might think it sounds too good to be true. And it was.

A little digging would have revealed the study was actually a gonzo-style fraud instigated by a documentary team set on revealing how easy it is to turn bad science into news headlines. (You can read the full, slightly depressing, story here. Felix Salmon has written another piece about the unfortunate cultural differences between science and journalism here.)

Companies have long employed PR to help get their message to the media. It allows them to piggyback on media outlets’ distribution while enjoying the subtle endorsement of the masthead, which readers trust.

Both are under threat. The media’s former monopolistic distribution has been eroded by the internet. It has never been easier, or quicker, for a company to build its own database of contacts.

Meanwhile, the power of the masthead continues to dwindle at an alarming rate. Trust in journalists is poor – the chocolate-bars-for-weight-loss episode is just one of many debacles. It is only getting worse as the business model collapses.

It has implications for our society, but it is also reality. For companies, it is an opportunity.

There has never been a better time to build and control distribution channels, reaching current and potential customers, with compelling content. Some call it content marketing – but I think that devalues both marketing and journalism. This is a new hybrid form.

Now enjoy the chocolate bar for what it is.