As much as I attempt to read as many New York Times and Atlantic articles as I possibly can, I confess: It just isn’t feasible. Given my school work, extracurriculars and attempt to get what’s considered a healthy amount of sleep, I just don’t have the time I’d like to sit down for hours and pore over every news outlet, read every breaking story and debate the findings. That’s why I’ve recently begun to swear by The New York Times’ morning briefings, essentially one- to two-sentence summaries of what the brief writers considered some of the most important news stories that day. This way, I feel as though I am staying up to date with the latest news.
About a week ago, The New York Times added a section called “Smarter Living: Morning Edition.” While the contents of the first edition of this new section were off to a positive, seemingly encouraging start — including reminders to stay positive and giving me a few tips to relieve my stress — the second Smarter Living edition struck a different cord. Scrolling past the section title, a plug for one of the stories caught my eye: “Miss your morning meal? Don’t sweat it — the science around the importance of breakfast is still basically unproven.” In it was a link to a piece on how breakfast may not be as important as we thought, because according to the article’s writer, many of the studies that corroborate this stance are weak at best.
While I don’t have too much of a problem with the fact that the author sets about to debunk the myth of breakfast being the most important meal of the day, the intentionally short plug — meant to hook the reader and recap the piece — was worded in such a way that its writer appeared oblivious to the harmful ways in which our society discusses eating. If I hadn’t clicked on the accompanying article, I might read the takeaway as one that deemphasizes the importance of eating more generally. The plug implies people should focus on eating less, but the piece focuses on debunking the theory that breakfast is the most important meal.
What’s even more jarring to me is the fact that if I suffered from an eating disorder, I might have read this short sentence and seen it as another affirmation of our society’s values. Instead of taking a flippant attitude toward skipping meals, we should be re-examining the way we talk about food. Even though this short sentence to draw in a reader may be misleading, what if this is how you get your news? We are a society that puts thinness on a pedestal; from the dimensions of Barbie to the style tips that tell us what colors will make us look thinner, we are constantly made self-conscious of our bodies. And though many eating disorders are about control, not so much food itself, there is no doubt that American society often emphasizes one ideal size.
As a young college-aged woman, fitting within the demographics most at risk for eating disorders and body image issues, this anecdote is especially alarming to me. According to the National Eating Disorders Association website, in 2011, 20 million women and 10 million men in the United States suffered from some type of eating disorder. In fact, girls as young as 6 are concerned with their weight or figure.
Instead of encouraging people to eat, short statements such as these tell a society (and anyone else reading this) where many are already hyperconscious of their body that eating isn’t very important. (That said, I acknowledge that there is a significant number of people who are not a huge fan of all meals, and if they want to skip a meal, that is their prerogative.)
But it is the job of journalists to be careful of every word they put out there — every phrase they shorten to make it fit into a briefing, every word they decide to use to pack more of a punch — because words matter. For the most part, I firmly believe that the fewer words you use to say things, the better. We need to think twice if we are attempting to boil something down that actually requires a more fleshed-out explanation, or we risk it being misinterpreted. For the young woman who, simply judging by her demographic as a young woman, already has a high risk of possibly developing an eating disorder, how does this seemingly inconsequential (yet attention-grabbing) sentence about how harmless it is to skip breakfast affect her? Something so stark published by a well-regarded publication like the Times has the power to help or harm in significant ways.
It is the job of the Times and all publications — in fact, all journalists, friends, family, authors and government officials — to think: If I condense something complex down into so few words, am I doing more harm than good?
Anna Polumbo-Levy is a co-editorial page editor.