According to media reports, The World Health Organization (WHO) recently issued a press release stating that the risk of processed meats such as bacon is as high as smoking when it comes to causing cancer. The WHO in fact did no such thing, but it could be argued that it didn’t cause itself any favours by releasing confusing and possibly misleading statements about its recent report.

The report itself conducted by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an arm of WHO, in fact reviewed how likely things are to cause cancer. They then slotted all of their findings into categories:

  • Group 1: established carcinogens – such as smoking, alcohol and you guessed it, processed meat
  • 2a – probably carcinogenic, although the data is not as yet established.
  • 2b (yes it is not called three) possibly carcinogenic
  • And finally a group that cannot be classified due to lack of data.

These classifications are in fact based on the strength of evidence, not the degree of risk of causing cancer. They are meant to classify how certain they are about the risk, not the degree of danger. So in fact the report is not saying that processed meat is as likely to cause you cancer as smoking at all, but that is not what has been reported. So who is responsible for the confusion, the report or the media? The responsibility ultimately lies with the quality of communications at WHO.

If you know, are, or have been a journalist you will know that in all likelihood you are overworked, under appreciated and often not an expert in the area you cover. You may become one through hard work, intelligence and ingenuity but your day to day focus is delivering content on time to an insatiable beast that never gets filled – these days generally called the Internet. As we process more of our news online, media needs more content than ever before, faster than ever before. News is now just as much about being first as being the best.

So, the onus on ensuring the accuracy of information falls firmly in the lap of the organisation responsible for disseminating it. And as such simplicity is king. No jargon, a clear purpose and the availability of good spokespeople to clarify any key points.

Although the process foods and cancer risk story seems like a bit of whacky frivolity you can bet your last ten dollars that the people at Australian Pork Limited would not have found it all that funny, or would your local butcher or deli owner.

So the message in the story is whatever you do make sure your messaging is simple and free from ambiguity otherwise you run the risk of misrepresentation in the media.

That’s all folks!