What One Article Tells Us About the Bad State of News Today

*Disclaimer: Although this post is about a particular article, this is not meant to be directed towards the author, Annette McGivney, personally or professionally; nor is it directed towards The Guardian, per se. I am not familiar with her work and I don’t read The Guardian. To reflect this, I will not refer to either the author or the publication by name in the article.

This post is more of an argument against the current phenomenon of dubious and bad news reporting and information sharing, of which this article is arguably an example.*   

I read an article a few days ago that was really disappointing. It was so disappointing that I pushed aside my work assignments so I can express this while it was fresh. Those of you who know me know what a significant statement this is, because I almost never push work aside.

The article I read had a provocative title, “Almonds are out. Dairy is a disaster. So what milk should we drink?” Despite the direction that titles seems to point to, it turns out to go nowhere. My immediate response after reading this article was that it was the best example of click-bait I’ve seen in a while, but that it’s click-baiting about as dire a subject as environmental sustainability. Without being dramatic, this was sad and disturbing.   

There are a two primary concerns I have about this article. First and foremost, this question didn’t deserve this article. It’s not that question of what we should be drinking shouldn’t be asked, but how it’s asked matters. Secondly, the answer is without-a-doubt “some other plant-based milk”; and after pulling readers in all different directions about plant-based milk, the author finally brings us to that point.

This first point is something I am very agitated by. I am not a journalist – I am just the Pretend Philosopher – but I don’t see how this article could’ve or should’ve passed editorial scrutiny because it is sensationalistic and misleading. The title must have been deliberately provocative, aggressively questioning the merits of almond milk with a tone that seems to indict all plant-based milks. I think this impression is impliedly clear and I think it’s obvious to everyone. It undermines the idea that this was a sincere question in the first place.

If the author was sincere, she would’ve framed both the title and content of the article significantly differently. Instead, we have a charged and goading title meant to attract readers, a constant tone that seems to demerit plant-based milks, and a very obtuse way of concluding that they’re all better than dairy. Furthermore, if the editors were sincere, they would have not allowed this article to be published as is, because it doesn’t meaningfully contribute to the discourse around sustainability and climate change. Quite the contrary, it was masterful click-bait.

This leads me to my second concern: that the answer to this question is without-a-doubt “some other plant-based milk”. The author names many plant-based milks and points to one or two concerns about each. For what it’s worth, she doesn’t mention pea-based milk, which uses comparatively less water than almond, soy, coconut, and cashew milks to produce. For the milks that she does mention, though, she raises valid concerns. My problems with this article isn’t the substantive points she makes, per se, rather my problems are all centered around how these points are conveyed and how this article overall is structured.

But, in fairness, I will outline her concerns about many of the plants of plant-based milks.

  • Coconuts are in such high demand that it has led to labor exploitation and contributes to the destruction of rainforests in order to keep up supply. She quotes Isaac Emery, a climate change and sustainability researcher, who states that “coconut is an absolute tragedy”. I think “absolute tragedy” is dramatic, but it is inarguable that there are negative environmental impacts from today’s production and distribution of coconuts.
  • Almonds use a lot of water compared to the other nondairy milks and the author cites that 70% of honeybee monoculturing is for almonds.
  • Rice also uses a lot of water and also more emits greenhouse gases than the other nondairy milks.
  • Hazelnuts, Hemp Seeds, and Flax Seeds are relatively more sustainable compared to other nondairy milks. Notably, the author suggests this is because they aren’t sold at the scale of the more popular almond-, soy-, and coconut-based milks. So, these could arguably bring about some negative impacts as they grow in market share.
  • Oat milk is relatively more sustainable compared to the other nondairy milks, but they are often produced in mass-production, monocultured settings. The author cites reports that such oats have been shown to be sprayed with glyphosate, a chemical in the pesticide, Roundup, that may be carcinogenic.

Then at the end of all this, after she leads us all to believe that nondairy milks shouldn’t be trusted, the author finally concludes they’re all better than dairy milk…

Loaded articles like these are part of a dismaying trend of news and information that is centered around shock and awe rather than learning and betterment. It’s bad enough that this is a thing, but it’s terrible when it happens with climate change and sustainability, which are truly and unequivocally some of the gravest and most threatening global problems we face. This is exploiting a really bad situation in order to raise the author’s profile or the profile of the publication, which is frankly shameless. If we’re serious about being serious, then let’s add this article and others like this to our “What Not to Read” lists.

Again, it’s not like sincerely asking what non-dairy milk we should be drinking is inherently a problem. We totally should be asking these and other questions about what products strengthen environmental sustainability. What this article does is ask this question in a goading and leading way. The way it’s framed suggests that the answer is going to be a demerit against nondairy milks, which is a sure to be appealing to vegans and nonvegans alike.

Ultimately, this article is a case study of what not to do and what not to read. Climate change is one of the most serious threats to our planet and sustainability should be one of our biggest priorities, they deserve better reporting than what is exhibited in that article. These issues are too serious to be relegated to blithe, gossipy, goading, and misleading discourse and analysis. Articles like these that masquerade as news shouldn’t be considered reporting at all.

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