As a writer, I’m really quite stunned at how easily many journalists, some members of the news media in particular, allow themselves to be manipulated by the spin wizards who write media releases for researchers and medical associations. And I have to say, these spin wizards really are very effective at dictating the way the news media covers medical issues. Recent case in point. The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published data from the National Infant Sleep Position Study, which was launched 1992 to monitor the impact of the Back to Sleep Campaign. (ie. Are parents really putting infants one their backs as they are advised to do to prevent Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)?)
For some reason the recently published paper focused on bedsharing rather than back, front or side sleeping. That a bit odd, given the alleged goals of the study. Mind you it’s not all that surprising given the single-minded, almost maniacal, obsession some American physicians have with trying to get mothers to stop taking infants into their beds at night.
Anyway, this study found that between 1992 and 2010 the percentage of parents who sleep with their babies actually increased. It pretty much doubled as a matter of fact. This, I would point out, happened during a time period when the rate of SIDS went down. Now, some might think that headlines would read “Reduction in SIDS rate linked to increased bedsharing,” or “Bedsharing rate rises as SIDS rate deceases.” But, no, the headlines, which were eerily similar, all said something to the effect of “More parents bedsharing in spite of the risk.” And they quoted the lead author’s opinion that medical professionals had to work harder to get parents to stop bedsharing.
We must ask why. Why did all the coverage spin this data into yet another indictment of the family bed?I can’t say for sure, but, based on my experience, I’ll just bet a media release was sent out by either JAMA or the American Medical Association itself. And I’d guess it contained a headline, or at least line or two, that read very much like the headlines that framed most of the news stories about the study. Then, as often happens, the uncurious, and perhaps very rushed, media did more cutting and pasting from the news release than real research and writing. I can’t tell you how many media stories I have seen on issues like this that have almost the same wording, because journalists basically parrotted the media release. That’s how the media allows spin doctors to determine what you read in the news.
What’s interesting is that at the same time JAMA posted the article about the increase in bedsharing they also posted an editorial, an opinion piece, by Dr. Abraham Bergman, a Seattle pediatrician who has been involved in SIDS research and advocacy for many years. His editorial bore the headline: Bedsharing per se, is not dangerous. In it he questions not only the evidence supporting the campaign against bedsharing, but also the accuracy of SIDS statistics, given the way the definition of SIDS keeps shifting. In a lot of jurisdictions, if the baby dies in the parents’ bed, medical examiners won’t call it SIDS, even if there was no evidence that the baby suffocated. But if a baby dies in a crib, which, of course, is the “approved” place, they call it SIDS, unless there is evidence to the contrary.
I was happy to see that a fair number of the media stories mentioned Dr. Bergman’s editorial, however that was usually buried fairly far down in the story. Some people don’t get past the headlines. And headlines create impressions and memories. That is what they are designed to do. So influencing headline is important part of a spin wizards’ job. Just try to find news headlines that say, “Respected, experienced pediatrician questions his colleagues’ nutty views on the supposed dangers of bedsharing.”
Back to the documented increase in bedsharing that is alarming some pundits. According to the study, bedsharing, as a regular nightly practice, is still rare (about 11% of parents admit to doing this). Earlier data from the same study suggested that almost half of parents do it sometimes, if not nightly. In other words, bedsharing is an entrenched practice, one kind of normal in American families. Hardly surprising, as I have said previously, in a society that actively encourages breastfeeding (although, we are far better at telling mothers to breastfeed than helping them to do it.). The link between breastfeeding and bedsharing is a biological reality.
So the real news is that bedsharing is increasing, not in spite of the risk, but in spite of the vendetta against it. Maybe some of the anti-bedsharing crowd should ask themselves why. Maybe they should try to understand the parents who do it, rather than acting like the parents are just plain stupid.