“Overweight kids face widespread stigma,” read the headline on the wire service story picked up by just about every news outlet this week.

Really? I had always thought that fat kids were jolly. In the gradient of pain that is childhood, surely heavy children came in at the comfy-chair level of suffering, compared to the being-beaten-by-sticks-with-nails rating of slender kids.

Sorry for the sarcasm. The bullying of children is evil. Is anyone oblivious to that?

But of course the story went on to hype itself, because both academics and journalists know that misery stories are common as dirt. They don’t sell. They need an angle.

So the AP flailed about, attempting to justify its existence, and came up with this. The stigma endured by overweight kids is such that it gives them “a quality of life comparable to [that of] people with cancer.” Here’s the problem. It doesn’t.

Even Rebecca M. Puhl, the lead author of the allegedly scientific Yale study of “all” studies on youth weight bias over the past 40 years, said that fat children were suffering as much as other “children” who had cancer. She didn’t say “people.” In other words, she wasn’t comparing the experience of fatness to that of cancer among people from two to 102, which would be ludicrous. She was comparing experiences of childhood misery.


Making the ‘dubious’ newsworthy

And this is not science. It is not journalism. It is storytelling. There’s a lot of it about, passing itself off as science and therefore worthy of attention. But with the explosion of TV channels, radio networks, big newspapers, tiny newspapers and subway handouts, online news, blogs, elevator news screens and so on, corporations are desperate for anything that sounds newsy.

And awkward comparisons are a way of inflating a dubious story to a level of newsiness, as we know. Compare anyone to Hitler, for instance, and you automatically make the front page. The obesity “study” reports, for instance, that a 1961 study asked children to rate photos of children as friends. The overweight child was ranked last. The story does not mention the size of the survey, whether it included children of different races or any other variables in the looker and the looked-at.

But the central problem is not pathetic science. It isn’t even the cruelty. Although it is difficult to imagine the disgust of a parent of a child with cancer reading this story and being asked to liken what their child is enduring — surgery, chemotherapy, hospitalization (and in the U.S., possible family bankruptcy), baldness, terror and every kind of pain — to the emotional pain of childhood obesity and being banned from Happy Meals and the new Wendy’s Baconator.

The problem is that news stories have to sell themselves as hard as authors do. It’s a fairly recent development for authors to be forced to go on book tours, even when the writers are infinitely less interesting than their words. But this is a law of publishing. Why should it become a law of journalism?

I admire Richard Dawkins in an abstract way. He has written fascinating books on science for the lay reader. But he will never top his bestseller, The God Delusion, which by his high intellectual standards is his worst book. It is a 400-page statement of the obvious, and it is beneath him, although his writing of it reveals an attractive aspect of his character.

He is un-snobbish and willing to write on different levels. Good for him. Religion affects us differently. He is annoyed. I am bored. Many are fascinated.

But even Dawkins feels compelled to over-egg his pudding. Apropos of the Catholic Church sex scandals, Dawkins says we live in a time of hysteria over pedophilia. I say he is wrong, only partly because so many adults have told me personally that they were sexually molested as children.

But Dawkins makes light of this, and it is his right to do so. He quotes with delight a reader who wrote to him that she was fondled by a Catholic priest when she was seven. But then a little school friend of hers died in a car accident and went to hell because she was a Protestant.

As Dawkins puts it, she is telling Dawkins that “of these two examples of Roman Catholic child abuse, the second was by far the worst.” She was saying teaching children religion is worse than raping them.

Unfair comparisons

But Dawkins, in agreeing with her, is making the same mistake as the wire service does. He is trying to bolster his case by comparing human pain.

Fatness is as agonizing as a killing cancer, a psychologist desperate for attention tells a reporter. A child having the core of her humanity violated by an adult is no worse than her being told inaccurate stories of her future post-death, a scientist/theorist suggests in order to sell his book.

It’s misleading and unfair, particularly when you’re a prosperous adult, much better able to defend yourself from life’s rigours than any child — fat, ill, raped or told a pack of lies about the eternal bonfire. Why am I all het up about what you might call “interpretive inflation,” you may well ask? Go ahead, ask.

This week I talked to Margaret Atwood, who may well be Canada’s cleverest person as well as the most patient. I was interviewing her about her new book of poetry, The Door, for another publication and asked her how she managed not to be depressed about the daily appalling acts of the Bush administration. Translation: I was asking her about interpretive inflation, a problem I suffer from along with Dawkins and Puhl.

She told me tartly to spend less time reading the news online and instead to read The Rape of Nanking. Read the eternities, not the times, she was saying, and she was right. If you have no perspective, a little history will give it to you.

But reading history is out of fashion. Context is passé.

We need context in journalism, particularly when we’re writing about the sufferings of children not our own. No more casual references to the pain of the innocents, please.

This week

House & Garden magazine interviewed Martha Stewart, asking her, “Did the time you spent in prison have an impact on your design esthetic or your idea of a home?”

Stewart answered: “Not really. Alderson [federal prison] was organized in the 1920s by the daughter of the man who was the president of Bucknell University. It was built as a reformatory for women, but the building looks just like the college. It was very beautifully arranged around a great big green. It made me feel like I was in a traditional kind of place.”

I’m not making this up. She’s not sane. And if she is, why has Conrad Black made such a fuss about a calming, well-designed environment?