Women's Magazines: A Liberal Pipeline to Soccer Moms

Table of Contents:

Part 2: Scaring Women to Death

"Gender plays ... a powerful role in perception of hazards." That was the conclusion of Professor John Graham of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis after the center polled more than 1,000 Americans to find out whether they believe in widely reported, but unproven, "hazards." Graham found that women were more likely to believe such scares were true by margins of 10 points or more, but he couldn't figure out why. "Some suggest that because women give birth, protect, and care for their children, they may naturally tend to be more nurturing than men, therefore they may be more concerned about hazards that may harm their families," Graham speculated. "Another possible explanation is that women are less familiar with science and technology than men, and are generally more fearful of it, especially in relation to nuclear power and chemicals." But Graham ended up concluding that "the role of gender in risk is more profound than can be explained by either the 'nurturing' or 'worldview' hypothesis" and that "more research is needed to understand why gender plays such a powerful role in perception of hazards."

One explanation Graham did not explore is that the reporting about risks in women's magazines may play a role in how women perceive those risks. After all, many women read these magazines not just for recipes and marriage advice but to receive important information about their own and their families' health. In a 1995 survey conducted by the American Dietetic Association, 80 percent of the female respondents said that women's magazines were a valuable source of information for them about nutrition. Overall, women's magazines ranked above TV news, newspaper articles, and even nurses as valuable sources of nutrition information.

Some advocacy groups already recognize that women's magazines can be a valuable ally in promoting their ideological agenda. In Science Under Siege, Michael Fumento reported that public relations agent David Fenton arranged interviews months in advance with magazines such as Woman's Day and Redbook to hype the scare he was orchestrating about the pesticide Alar that has now been widely discredited by respected scientists. The magazines readily complied with Fenton in 1989 with headlines such as "The Foods that Are Poisoning Your Child" (Redbook) and "Are Pesticides Poisoning Our Children?" (Woman's Day)

Mainstream media outlets are not above running alarming stories about unproven risks either, but they usually give at least some space or air time to the other side. Articles in women's magazines, by contrast, frequently don't even acknowledge that there is another side. Many of the stories appear to be spoon-fed to the magazines by activists and go against mainstream science. Yet as the ADA survey suggests, women tend to trust these magazines more than any other type of media. The following examination of how these magazines -- Better Homes & Gardens, Family Circle, Glamour, Good Housekeeping, Ladies' Home Journal, Mademoiselle, McCall's, Parents, Redbook, Weight Watchers and Woman's Day -- treat certain risk issues indicates that much of this trust is misplaced. (Two of the magazines surveyed, Prevention and Working Woman, did not report on the risk issues studied here.)

Chemicals and Health Effects. "One of the most overblown risks is that minute quantities of pesticide residues on food are related to human cancer," Harvard's Graham told Weight Watchers (December 1995) in one of the only articles to put this risk in perspective. Other articles, including one in Weight Watchers itself, indicate that these magazines seem to have learned very little in the seven years since the Alar scare. The National Academy of Sciences, the most prestigious scientific body in the U.S., recently concluded that most "synthetic chemicals appear to be present at levels below which any significant biologic effect is likely, and so low that they are unlikely to pose an appreciable cancer risk." The NAS also pointed out that man-made pesticides are greatly outnumbered by natural pesticides plants make themselves, and that many of these natural chemicals have been found to be just as potent as the synthetic ones.

Nevertheless, according to Graham's poll, around 70 percent of women believe pesticides pose a hazard (compared with less than 60 percent of men), and an examination of this issue's coverage in women's magazines helps explain why. Of the 15 stories on claims of serious health effects from chemicals, eight of the stories were completely one-sided and mentioned no skeptical arguments against the claims. Three of the stories mentioned opposing arguments, but did so in a superficial manner. Only 4 out of the 15 articles were balanced in that they explored skeptical arguments in detail and tried to get to the scientific truth.

In an August 6 Family Circle article entitled "Danger in the House," the author warns of a "chemical invasion" from cleaning solutions and garden pesticides that "pose potential health risks ranging from allergic reactions to cancer." The article mentions no scientists who question these risks nor does it mention what level of exposure is needed before these ill health effects occur (just about all substances, natural and artificial, are harmful at some level). And the author uses the flimsy anecdotal case of a mother who blamed garden pesticides sprayed in her neighborhood for her daughters' stomach aches and vomiting (which could have had any number of causes), even though she didn't know what pesticides were being sprayed. The April McCall's ran a slightly less hysterical article on garden pesticides, but urged readers to contact the National Coalition Against the Issue of Pesticides, a radical environmental group that wants to ban pesticides even if they pose a very small risk.

McCall's (February 1996) and Better Homes & Gardens (March 1996) warned of pesticide residues in baby food, and these articles also contained no arguments casting doubt on pesticides dangers, although McCall's did quote a doctor saying that "the health benefits of eating fruits and vegetables are far, far greater than the risks." The article pointed out that babies and children are more sensitive to pesticides than adults, but never let readers know that government sets pesticide standards to account for individuals who are 1,000 times more sensitive than average. The articles also recommend that parents buy more expensive organic baby food, without mentioning the natural pesticide residues that may be contained in these foods and pose the same (small) risk.

Three stories in Mademoiselle (June 1996), Glamour (April 1996), and Weight Watchers (June 1996) that reported on the alleged link between chemicals and breast cancer never mentioned that the largest study ever conducted found no correlation between that disease and synthetic chemicals such as DDT and PCBs. Weight Watchers even condemned scientific studies that pointed to other possible causes such as genetics and diet as sexist because they "suggested it was a woman's fault if she developed breast cancer."

The magazines that covered the newer chemical scare about "environmental estrogens" that allegedly affect reproductive health didn't fare much better. The two stories in Mademoiselle (June 1996) and Glamour (April 1996) at least aired skeptical viewpoints but gave those opinions only a fraction of the space devoted to arguments for the scare. And both stories ignored important counter-arguments to some of the "facts" asserted by environmentalists. Glamour, for instance, did not report that the study that found declining sperm counts, a supposed effect of synthetic chemicals, had been severely criticized by many respected scientists and in an editorial in the very scientific journal that originally published it. Mademoiselle did mention in parentheses a new conflicting study that found that sperm counts have actually increased in the U.S. But the article did not mention how the new study casts doubts on the old study's finding of declining sperm counts by highlighting the geographic variation in sperm counts that the old study did not account for. Neither article mentioned that humans are exposed to far more natural estrogens from plants than to synthetic estrogen-licking chemicals.

The only story to mention pesticides' benefits in producing an affordable, abundant supply of fruits and vegetables was a July Better Homes & Gardens article that quoted an industry spokesman saying that he'd "rather take a chance on one ppb [parts per billion] in the food than on having no food at all." Unfortunately, the article then undercuts balance and accuracy by stating, without any evidence, that "concern about pesticide residue ... will become a moot point as the quality of organic produce continues to improve." This is wishful thinking. Agricultural experts such as the Hudson Institute's Dennis Avery, the former senior agricultural analyst for the U.S. Department of State, point out that crop yields from organic farms are typically less than half of those from conventional, high-yield farms, and that organic farms show no signs of catching up anytime soon.

The only two articles that critically examined chemical scares were stories in Good Housekeeping (September) and Ladies' Home Journal (March) that pointed out the lack of scientific evidence behind claims that artificial sweeteners were harmful. An article in the January Glamour that has dentists rate natural toothpastes also deserves kudos because it points out that natural isn't always good and artificial isn't always bad. The dentists note that many of the natural toothpastes lack fluoride, which provides the most vital protection against decay, and that many of the toothpastes' natural ingredients such as baking soda and sea salt may wear down tooth enamel.

On the bright side, the magazines proved very capable of putting minor health effects from food ingredients in perspective. Most of the nine articles on the fat substitute olestra were just as good, if not better, than those published in the mainstream media. Six stories were careful to mention that only some people get side effects such as diarrhea, and that olestra snacks are fortified with vitamins to make up for the nutrients that olestra inhibits the body from receiving from other foods. Two articles in Weight Watchers (March and June) went over the arguments of olestra's defenders superficially, and only one article was completely one-sided against olestra and this was clearly marked in Woman's Day (July 16) as an opinion piece. McCall's gave the most balanced coverage of all by noting that the percentage of olestra snackers suffering side effects in studies was virtually the same as that of the non-olestra snackers suffering side effects. All three stories on the flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate reported that most people don't suffer allergic reactions to it.

Drinking Water/Chlorine. Women's magazines also featured many warnings about unsafe drinking water. Unless she were to read one balanced article about risks in the April 23 Woman's Day, a subscriber to these magazines would likely never know that "the American water supply is one of the safest in the world, and outbreaks of contamination ... are very rare." This was the only balanced article of the six articles that dealt with water. The other five were scare-mongering stories that did not even present another side to their points of view.

With titles like "What's in your water?" and "Troubled waters," these articles usually couldn't see the algae for the lake. They vastly overstated drinking water's risks and failed to distinguish the real risks in water systems. For instance, articles in Good Housekeeping (November 1995), Parents (March), and Mademoiselle (September) uncritically reported an alarmist study by the Environmental Working Group about agricultural pesticide runoff in water and treated pesticides as if they were as serious a problem as cryptosporidium and other waterborne bacteria. But as agricultural expert Avery has written, "The fact is that field application of pesticides is not contaminating drinking water. The only pesticide residues exceeding good health standards in recent EPA and state surveys have been from known pollution sites."

One of the most ironic aspects of the water stories is that they routinely bash chlorine as unsafe, even though chlorine is the chemical that provides the most effective protection against waterborne diseases. Bizarre as it may seem, while the World Health Organization pursues chlorination of the world's drinking water systems as one of its top priorities, the July Better Homes & Gardens suggests that Americans stop putting chlorine in their pools! A subheading in Good Housekeeping asked, "Is chlorine bad for you?" Mademoiselle charged that "chlorine, normally a water safety hero because it kills most bacteria, produces cancer-causing by-products." Good Housekeeping did at least quote a scientist who says, "The risk of microbial contamination far outweighs the smaller increased risk of cancer." Yet none of the stories illustrated the risk of not using chlorine by informing readers what happened after Peru stopped chlorinating its water in the early '80s: a cholera epidemic that so far has killed 10,000 people.

As for the possible cancer risks of chlorine by-products, the award-winning cancer researcher Bruce Ames of the University of California-Berkeley (who, incidentally, was not quoted in any of the articles) points out that at the levels humans are exposed to, chlorine by-products in tap and swimming pool water are less carcinogenic than peanut butter, which contains the mold aflatoxin.

The story that the magazines all issued is that because the federal government issues top-down regulations that cost municipalities up to $37 billion a year (according to the Competitive Enterprise Institute) in chasing small risks such as pesticides and chlorine by-products, the municipalities often don't have the resources or the flexibility to fully pursue larger local risks like cryptosporidium.

Passive Smoke. In Graham's survey, almost 80 percent of women believed that environmental tobacco smoke or passive smoke was a serious health hazard, compared with slightly over 60 percent of men who believed this was so. Judging from the coverage of this issue in women's magazines, this may be another case where women's perceptions may be shaped or reinforced by the periodicals they read. Of five articles that covered the alleged health risk of passive smoke, only one featured any skeptical arguments. A December, 1995 Weight Watchers article proclaimed, "Mindful of secondhand-smoke risks, many cities are banning smoking in public places," without ever questioning if the risks were real. An April 23 Woman's Day article entitled "Health Scares: Real or Not" that did a good job of deflating other scares such as dirty water, uncritically accepts the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) estimate that passive smoke causes 3,000 lung cancer deaths a year. It is only in a four-page Better Homes & Gardens article that a skeptical view is even presented, and this article spends just two paragraphs quoting a Tobacco Institute spokesman who criticized the EPA and said passive smoke risks are "not even slight."

However, none of these articles gave readers a clue that it is not just tobacco industry spokesmen who question the EPA's findings on passive smoke. The non-partisan Congressional Research Service, for one, has concluded that "the statistical record does not appear to support a conclusion that there are substantial health effects of passive smoking." The CRS noted that under circumstances of conventional studies, the EPA's finding "is not statistically significant." Steve Milloy, president of the Environmental Policy Analysis Network, have noted that even the risk the EPA did find (1.19) is so tiny that some experts don't even consider it a real risk. He notes that there are higher correlations between yogurt and ovarian cancer (2), whole ilk and lung cancer (2.14), and abortion and breast cancer (1.5), than there is between passive smoke and lung cancer.

The September Parents ran a one-sided article entitled "Smoking is Child Abuse" that blames passive smoke for a number of childhood illnesses. It quotes Dr. Joseph DiFranza as saying, "A judge should know whether an adult seeking custody of a youngster smokes, so the child isn't placed in an unhealthy environment." However, the article does not note that even DiFranza has acknowledged in a medical journal article that not all studies show these effects. Some researchers also question the notion that passive smoke could cause an illness such as middle ear disease when smoking itself has never been found to cause this illness. An article presenting both sides suggesting caution when smoking around children would have been appropriate, but this article is too one-sided and alarmist in the face of uncertain scientific research.

Recycling. According to women's magazines, recycling is always good. Out of 15 articles that mentioned recycling, there was not one skeptical argument presented that sometimes recycling is impractical and wastes resources. A statement typical of the philosophy of these articles came from an article in the June Better Homes & Gardens that showcased products such as a yardbird made from old garden tools. The article said, "For recycling to be successful, consumers must make the process profitable for manufacturers by purchasing products made from recycled materials." But should manufacturers make recycled products if they're not profitable? Some reporters in the mainstream media are now breaking a taboo and asking this question. An article in the New York Times Magazine said that recycling not only is more costly than landfilling, it also is sometimes "a messy way to try to help the environment" and has environmental costs associated with it, citing examples of energy wasted by additional garbage trucks that have to pick up recycled materials.

Alcohol. One area where women's magazines have a better record at reporting on comparative risks is in articles weighing the health benefits of moderate drinking against the hazards of excess drinking. An article in McCall's (May) and two in Good Housekeeping (May and September) reported on the announcement in Department of Agriculture's Dietary Guidelines that moderate consumption of alcohol can lower the risk of heart disease. The articles note, however, that drinking can be hazardous with medications, during pregnancy, or in excess. Unfortunately, another article in Good Housekeeping (August 1996) focuses on the "overlooked dangers" alcohol poses to women without mentioning its health benefits. And a "To Do" article in the January Weight Watchers on hangovers ended by saying, "And remember: Alcohol is a drug, so it's best not to drink in the first place."

Nannyism. The biggest risk issues women's magazine take on have to do with household products. Frequently, there are articles that give good advice about how to select the safest products for children and how to monitor children using these products. However, there is a disturbing tendency in seven articles for the authors to act as a national nanny and preach to readers what they should and shouldn't buy. Articles in Woman's Day (June 4 and Aug. 6) tell mothers not to allow guns to be kept in the house. Woman's Day (Feb. 1) and Parents (March) tell moms not to let kids play with BB guns. In these cases, the authors are not serving their readers by informing of risks, they are crossing the line into substituting their value judgments for those of their readers. Many of these articles also fail to point out that the product isn't as much of a danger as is the lack of parental supervision. For instance, a June 4 Woman's Day article recommended that parents not buy baby walkers because they injured 25,000 children each year. But the article failed to note that according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, over 20,000 children who are not in baby walkers also are injured falling down the stairs each year. A much better article on how to manage risks comes from August Parents. The article describes a possible hazard that may occur when lead in imported miniblinds breaks down into dust particles and children lick the blinds. But it quotes someone who points out that this can be taken care of by washing the blinds yearly.

Ladies' Home Journal's Valuable Advice. This study reviewed 56 mentions of science and risk issues. Of those, 35 -- more than half -- were completely one-sided and did not even acknowledge a skeptical view. Six include an opposing view but gave it much less ink and discussed it superficially. Only 15 were balanced articles that put risks in perspective by reference to scientific findings. Clearly, women and families have enough to worry about and don't need new, baseless fears added to their burden. Indeed, many women would be interested in articles that report how much government regulations for tiny risks cost them and their families. The Small Business Administration places the costs of regulation at almost $7000 per household. This cost is passed on to women and families in terms of higher prices and less competition and product innovation.

The article that, by far, provided the best overall coverage of health and science issues appeared in the March issue of Ladies' Home Journal. In that article, Alfred Sommer, dean of the School of Hygiene and Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, gave some guidelines to help readers evaluate health claims. Judging from the quality of their articles on risk issues, women's magazine writers should learn some of Sommer's tips as well:

"Keep in mind that each study is a piece of a bigger puzzle. View each new finding as an update rather than the final word."

"Remember that most studies highlight an association between a behavior characteristic and a health outcome, not necessarily a cause-and-effect relationship."

"Even when an association between a particular behavior and a health risk is found it doesn't mean one leads to the other."

"Finally, consider the size and duration of the study (the larger it is and the longer it ran, the more dependable its findings) and the source of the report."