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NPR Follows The Herd On Milk Marketing Survey

Jun 26, 2017

If the number of media mentions is an indicator, the National Dairy Council and affiliated organization the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy seemed to hit the equivalent of a marketing home run with a recent survey purporting to show that 7 percent of Americans believe chocolate milk comes from brown cows.

Good for them. I just don't think NPR should have played along.

NPR was not the first to report on the "findings" of the survey. In early June, a brief USA Today piece also shared the surprising (and not terribly believable) statistic that 48 percent of Americans don't know where chocolate milk comes from, as did Food and Wine.

On the "Undeniably Dairy" marketing campaign website, "Dairy Good" had this to say about the survey in the comments:

The full survey currently isn't posted anywhere. The survey was conducted by Edelman Intelligence to kick off our Undeniably Dairy campaign on behalf of the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy.

The purpose of the survey was to gauge some interesting and fun facts about consumers' perceptions of dairy, not a scientific or academic study intended to be published, yet the USA Today Snapshot's interest in the chocolate milk stats, and subsequent coverage of that, has brought on the attention.

While the study wasn't intended for public consumption, it is statistically valid. The study polled 1,000 American adults online between May 5 and May 9, 2017. Responses came from all 50 states, and the regional response breakdown was fairly even.

I asked the National Dairy Council for the study or at least the questions asked, and a spokeswoman had this response:

The intent of the survey was to be lighthearted and fun. We know people are confused about where their food comes from. Our ultimate goal is to find compelling ways to spark conversation about food and agriculture as the majority of us are generations removed from the farm. This was not a scientific or official market research piece and never was intended to be. This same lighthearted survey also showed that 43 percent of those surveyed would give up their social media channels for a year's supply of free ice cream.

All Things Considered's June 16 story was indeed lighthearted in tone, but it passed the 7-percent-of-Americans-believe-chocolate-milk-comes-from-brown-cows number off as a real statistic, citing the 1,000 people surveyed. A headline ("Alarming Number Of Americans Believe Chocolate Milk Comes From Brown Cows"), which was added when the piece was posted at npr.org, gave the numbers even more credence. Three days later, Morning Edition turned the "survey" results into 29 seconds of upbeat filler material.

The All Things Considered piece included an interview with the president of the National Dairy Council, Jean Ragalie-Carr, talking about the study's seemingly bizarre questions ("Well, there was brown cows or black-and-white cows, or they didn't know") and the council's marketing message, that Americans are disconnected from the source of their foods.

It also included an interview about that disconnect with Lisa Cimperman, who was identified as a registered dietitian, but not as a past spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics (her LinkedIn profile says that term expired in May). The National Dairy Council is listed as a national sponsor of the Academy.

As Parke Wilde, an associate professor teaching food policy at Tufts University's Friedman School, noted in a blog post, NPR's story also did not mention that the Innovation Center of U.S. Dairy "has an interest in educating Americans about real dairy products, so they think well of sweetened dairy beverages (chocolate milk is real milk) and don't think so well of soy milk and other non-dairy alternatives."

I asked the newsroom about how NPR treated the story. Carline Watson, executive producer of All Things Considered, said the show was "being tongue-in-cheek and having a little radio fun, and in no way intended to suggest that this was a scientific study."

Whether that came across is in the ear of the listener — and it didn't to me. Those who only read headlines via social media would not have come away with that impression, either. (Sara Goo, NPR's interim managing editor for digital news, told me that the serious headline that was added when the piece went online, "accurately reflects the radio conversation.")

Survey results aside, it seems to me that NPR's two pieces simply bought into the dairy industry's marketing message (which is not that different from that of the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance back in 2011). There are other data going back many years to suggest that Americans are indeed disconnected from the sources of their food; that may be a valid story even if it is not a particularly new or compelling one. But NPR's role is not to parrot marketing campaigns, no matter how lightheartedly, with no independent reporting. Acting as a public relations news service has never been NPR's role, but it's particularly important to disavow it in an era where Americans are already intensely skeptical about the news media. In the current atmosphere, the credibility of even the smallest stories matters.

For another critique of NPR's reporting on the chocolate milk story, see this piece from Columbia Journalism Review, which includes this line: "That serious, respected outlets like The Washington Post and NPR ran with this story feels like a failure."

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