One of the more common excuses for athletes caught in a doping or steroid scandal is to claim that something illegal somehow got slipped into their dietary or nutritional supplements.
For a while, this was impacting the supplement industry as a whole, says Judy Blatman, VP of communications for the industry's trade group, the Council for Responsible Nutrition.
Dietary and nutritional supplements can include everything from vitamins and minerals to botanicals, sports nutrition supplements, and weight management products, Blatman says. "Whenever there's negative press about one of the categories, it certainly had an effect on the media's view of the other categories," she adds. "But now there seems to be a greater understanding in the media that any controversy with a doping scandal is less a function of the supplement industry and more individual companies doing illegal things or athletes who are cheating."
Dan Henkel, public information director for the American College of Sports Medicine, echoes that view.
"Journalists come to us if a story breaks because we're world experts on issues such as steroids and doping," he says. "We also get inquiries about supplements and nutrition in general because we also have experts in that, but I haven't seen one deeply affected by the other."
Jim Stoppani, senior science editor at Muscle & Fitness and Flex, says he does a lot of coverage of supplements, but little on illegal performance enhancers.
"We assume our readers know the danger," he explains. "We feel that if we caution them, it's almost like we're condoning the use. Instead, we focus a lot more on the positive aspects of a healthy diet."
While doping tends to be a sports-page story, most dietary supplement coverage is done by health and nutritional writers. Gillian Christie, CEO of Santa Barbara, CA-based Christie Communications, says most of those journalists usually err on the side of caution, demanding rock-solid scientific studies before they tout a supplement or "nutraceutical."
Blatman adds the media also tend to assume that dietary supplements are not regulated by the government, when, in fact, they are. "That's a misperception that we always try to address," she says.
As far as pitching supplement stories, Gail Becker, president of Boca Raton, FL-based GBA Health Communications, says it's important to provide medical or dietary experts to validate claims. She adds: "You should also not pitch dietary supplements in isolation. Focus on the fact that they are part of a healthy lifestyle."
PITCHING... Nutritional supplements
Even sports doping stories can be an opportunity to educate consumers about the importance of healthy supplements and diets
Many reporters are leery of international studies, so make sure you support a nutritional or dietary supplement pitch with US-based studies and experts
Pitch supplements not as single items, but as part of an overall healthy lifestyle