Medicine and the Media

Anorexia in young children: press coverage was flawed

BMJ 2011; 343 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.d5072 (Published 17 August 2011)
Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d5072

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  1. Margaret McCartney, general practitioner, Glasgow
  1. margaret{at}margaretmccartney.com

Freedom of information requests by the Telegraph were misinterpreted as showing a threefold rise in UK childhood anorexia, but the methodology of the newspaper’s approach is not strong enough to draw this conclusion, says Margaret McCartney

On 31 July the Sunday Telegraph ran the headline “Hundreds of preteen children treated for eating disorders” (www.telegraph.co.uk/health/children_shealth/8672564/Hundreds-of-preteen-children-treated-for-eating-disorders.html). It followed, “Almost 600 children below the age of 13 have been treated in hospital for eating disorders in the past three years, new figures have revealed. The statistics include 197 children between the ages of five and nine—with cases within this age group almost doubling over the period.”

The article followed with a comment on the “‘pernicious’ celebrity culture” glorifying thinness as a reason for the trend and noted that 35 NHS trusts gave the information but that “even these statistics, disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act, are likely to be an underestimate. Some NHS hospitals treating such patients refused to provide any data, while among the 35 hospitals, some would only disclose the figures for those children admitted to wards after becoming dangerously emaciated.”

Freedom of information requests have become a standard tool in the journalist’s toolbox. They are cheap to do, requiring simply an email asking for relevant information, and relatively quick, with a maximum of 20 days’ response time, and effectively three and a half days for a …

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