Suppose there was a pill out there that could raise your IQ by 15 points and solve a number of health problems. If the price was 5 cents per year and it had no side effects at all, would you take it? Sadly, convincing people to do so required tens of millions of dollars, and the media certainly did not help.

This pill is common salt with traces of potassium iodate added. The simple step of adding iodine can eliminate the problem of iodine deficiency – one of the leading causes of mild retardation, stunted growth and other diseases. One in four people in the world suffer from iodine deficiency, and it is particularly a problem in central Asia.

Considering all the problems that can be solved by the cheap fix of iodized salt, it is hard to understand why iodine deficiency still exists. Turkmenistan’s despotic ruler was able to effectively solve this problem by simply outlawing non-iodized salt. Tackling the problem in the more democratic Kazakhstan, however, proved to be much harder than iodizing the salt itself.

When organizations like UNICEF set out to eliminate iodine deficiency in Kazakhstan, they encountered fierce resistance. Strong lobbies formed of iodine pill makers who feared reduced revenues and salt companies who feared higher costs. With their backing, cardiologists argued against iodized salt, claiming that increased salt consumption isn’t healthy, even though salt iodization had no correlation with increased salt consumption. Civil libertarians denounced government measures to promote iodized salt – they wanted the right to consume non-iodized salt, even though iodized salt tastes exactly the same. The fact that their demands would cause iodine deficiency to remain a major problem among the poor and impoverished didn’t concern them.

Local tabloids started rumors that iodine could cause “AIDS, diabetes, seizures, impotence and peevishness.” It was also blamed for “ruining caviar, softening hard cheese and exploding pickled vegetables.” A large portion of the public eventually viewed any government attempts to iodize salt as an attempt to poison them.

This entire circus just proved that no matter how great an idea is, someone will always try to sabotage it. It was only after tens of millions of dollars were spent by foreign aid organizations that all the misinformation was cleared up and iodine deficiency was eliminated from Kazakhstan.

The media’s fundamental role is to inform and educate the public about issues. The Kazakh media clearly failed and the battle to promote iodized salt was won only due to political and PR efforts of altruistic international parties. If you think that such a debacle would never happen in America, think again.

Over the past few years, scientific issues like evolution and global warming have been represented as political issues where everyone’s opinions are equally valid. On global warming, corporations like Exxon-Mobil spent millions of dollars in funding groups that seek to “undermine mainstream scientific findings.” The U.S. government was accused of pressuring climate scientists to oppose global warming. These efforts, along with the media’s “balanced” news coverage, allowed the battle to continue in the court of public opinion – even as the vast majority of the scientific community reached a consensus on the issue.

In both cases, the media deserves part of the blame for not doing a better job of educating and informing the public. The prevailing policy of telling both sides of the story with equal credibility and airtime only serves to increase public confusion and indecision. I’m not calling for censorship – the media should continue to provide all relevant information. However, if one side of the issue has indisputable evidence, this should be made clearly visible.

News coverage should sound biased if all the facts and evidence themselves are one-sided. In the case of Kazakhstan, the average Joe who knows nothing about medicine should be informed that only those with vested interests are critical of iodized salt, but the vast majority of doctors and scientists, supported by overwhelming scientific evidence, are in consensus over its benefits.

One of the media’s most basic roles should be to combat self-serving propaganda. This is a job that the media has lately shirked. In its drive to eliminate the specter of bias and tell “both sides of the story,” the media presents both arguments for and against with equal credibility. Real journalism, where spurious arguments are ferreted out and exposed, is hard to come by these days. Instead of educating and informing the public, the media has simply become another medium through which rumors and propaganda spread.

– Rajiv Prabhakar can be reached at rajivp@umich.edu.

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