In the numerous movies based on the Wild West we have seen throughout our lives, several tropes and character archetypes were more common than others. Sometimes it was the wise old native who imparted some wisdom to the protagonist and sometimes it was the rogue with a heart of gold that came through for the helpless at the end. Another figure that was commonplace in the movies was one that traveled the lawless lands of the Wild West with a horse carriage, selling medicine made from all manner of things. These figures are not solely invented for the movies of course, as they were quite frequent in history, usually named as snake oil salesmen.
These figures offered the world to their potential customers, promising to cure every single ailment with their concoctions. The name came from one of the most famous examples of this practice: The Snake Oil Liniments of Clark Stanley. The U.S. government, however, decided to test this panacea and found out its ingredients. These were mineral oil, 1 percent fatty oil, red pepper, turpentine and camphor. Thus, snake oil as a term became synonymous with fake medicine. Its sellers were also branded as charlatans.
However, this practice did not die, as law and order came to the Wild West. It simply transformed to fit different mediums and promised to cure different incurable medicinal problems. You can still find many instances where they advertise on radio and TV channels or sell from their websites with glowing and likely fake reviews. Not to mention that the practice of overpromising is also rampant in marketing as well. Even though a product may not be fake and works in some manner, by overpromising, the hype of many marketing attempts only lead to disappointment in the end.
Unfortunately, journalism is not exempt from this unethical practice. With the New Year still fresh in our minds, many people try to adopt resolutions to fix or improve what they find uncomfortable with their lives. The most common example would be losing weight, which is done via diets or hitting the gym. In this atmosphere, news websites also see an increase of articles on regimens that allow readers to lose weight. Or do they?
Recently one of the readers of our sister newspaper Sabah daily sent me an email a couple of weeks ago saying:
"There is a tea recipe on your site that promises that you can lose weight, as much as three kilos in a week. Are there any side effects of making this tea and drinking it the next day? Or should it be drunk, while it is hot?"
When I checked the news website I found out that there was indeed a news article on this matter. It started:
"The first step of new resolutions starts with a desire for a healthy life and losing weight. What if we can tell you that losing three kilos in a week is possible?
With minimal changes in your daily routine, losing weight is not as hard as you think it is. With this tea that allows you to lose three kilos in a week, you can get rid of your excess weight."
Afterwards, they described how to prepare the tea in their article. Although I am aware that losing weight cannot be achieved with a simple panacea method that can be administered to everyone, I still asked three of my friends to try this recipe. The results, of course, were not the same as those that the article promised. After all, everyone possesses a different constitution, and the process of losing weight requires different avenues, from exercising to dietary components.
This article is not alone in this regard either. A simple search can show us dozens of similar articles published recently in various news sources, hyping different methods of losing weight. The main common factor is that the method always looks like an easy way out; just like snake oil where a simple pill or a concoction is promised to heal all ailments without extensive treatments.
Losing weight is not the only thing these types of articles promise as well. Hair loss is another popular avenue. Beautification or rejuvenation processes are also common. While not all articles can be classified as snake oil journalism, many of them exaggerate or use click bait headlines to damage the integrity of the news itself. This problem is also more prevalent on the web side of things since hits are much more relevant there compared to newspapers where readers already paid the sum regardless of the individual articles.
Then we see more serious cases with cures for cancer, AIDS or similar inoperable diseases. In these instances, the articles sell hope rather than a cure. And it is a false hope where the simplest advances and developments on the road to a cure are portrayed as the cure itself in the headlines or spots of the articles. We actually touched on this subject in the past in the Reader's Corner article that was published back in October 2014. Here is the one size fits all recipe of these unethical articles:
"Let's do something similar. In the above-mentioned types of news articles there are several recurring themes. Firstly, as we said, it has to be about a disease that is either deadly or common or both and it has to be without a definitive cure. Secondly, the effectiveness of the ingredients must be ambiguous. As it goes for scientists – usually unnamed – and research centers that are either very famous or not known are all equally ambiguous when it comes to how developments will be effective in the search for a cure. Lastly, and most probably the worst thing is the title of the story. The title that people usually click is often along the lines of "Cure for X" or "Critical development in X." Do all of the above and you can easily call yourself a snake oil journalist."
After four years, the situation remains unchanged. We have to understand that just like our health, medicinal journalism is a very serious business. It cannot be considered as "filler content" with shoddy work, only there to draw more readers. On the contrary, it should be all the more rigorous with its fact-checking to discredit those unethical practices that prey on the public with their fake cures. Journalists should expose those snake oil merchants to fulfill the main goal, which is to inform readers, instead of joining them in exploiting the public.
This is a case where we see numerous individual problems combine to form a truly enormous and unethical one. Let us list them with keeping the above-mentioned recipe in mind. Using click-bait headlines and spots is the most common method. In these cases, even though the article itself might be correct and factual, the packaging presents it as something different and hopeful. Then we have shoddy fact checking, which can cause even more serious harm as factually wrong information finds its way on a seemingly credible newspaper. This can even cause health detriments for the readers. The next problem on our list is the tendency towards sensationalism. This is also partially the result of the necessity of hits on news websites, where journalists exaggerate the situation. And finally, we have playing fast and loose with anonymous sources. Most of these types of articles are based on unnamed research centers or simply "expert doctors." Although anonymity of sources is an important facet of journalism, using it to tell fanciful tales is quite unethical as you might agree. Not to mention that some actual sources also exaggerate their findings for popularity and grants. Therefore, naming sources would go a long way not only to providing credibility to the newspaper but also to the related research center, scientist or doctor as well.
Without solving each of these problems, which only in turn cause more every day, newspapers cannot hope to protect their own credibility. The short-term reader influx is unsustainable with these methods anyway. But more important is the ethical problems, which should alone be enough to warn away any journalist in danger of becoming a snake oil merchant.