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My take on CBC's "Running Shoe Controversy"

Posted Aug 28 2009 8:23pm

Last week, I managed to sabotage a potential radio interview with CBC's The Current when I told correspondent Jodie Martinson I had a few concerns about a previous piece The Current had run about barefoot running vs. shod running on May 11, 2009: "Running Shoe Controversy" (see part 3 down the page). I found quite interesting that Jodie didn't seem interested to learn what my concerns were. Instead, she came up with what it seemed to me like an excuse, telling me they had received a good amount of feedback from their audience and that they wanted to do a follow up to the running piece that way instead. I was told this follow up piece was supposed to run on Friday, May 15th. Checking back on the show archives I found no trace of this follow up piece on that date. I'm curious as of when this piece will actually run...

My concerns about the May 11 story were similar to the concerns I have for many of these media articles; whether it's TV, radio or print, many of these pieces seem to follow a common pattern or formula used to showcase something or someone uncommon or who's going somehow against the social grain:

  1. Find and interview this "oddity"; who is usually fairly passionate and, in cases militant, about their unique practise or feature.
  2. Get someone neutral to give this new way of doing things a quick try and see how they react.
  3. Close the piece with a consultation with a "reputable/credible expert" that will pretty much antagonize nearly everything what the "oddity" tried to get across in the very limited time they first had for the interview.

If you apply this formula to any subject, you will have a great tendency from the general public to believe the last person who is interviewed. One, simply because it's human nature to retain better the information that was last given (even Web site usability studies show that the last item in navigation menus are what users remember best). And two, because the last person interviewed usually comes with a number of credentials that make the audience believe they know what they are talking about, even if their views are clouded by their pre-conceived ideas on the subject.

Now, more specifically, my take on the Running Shoe Controversy piece:

After a passionate delivery by barefoot marathon runner Chris McDougall about how running shoes are not as good for runners as most people think and some good information about how, if anyone develops the proper running techniques, it doesn't matter whether you are barefooted or wearing any type of footwear, they have runner John Chipman give Vibram Five Fingers (minimalist, glove-like, shoes that are supposed to simulate being barefoot) and barefoot running a try - for what it seems like a 2 minute run in the interview.

Right off the bat, as soon as Chipman starts talking about the shoes you can notice some negativity on his voice and he actually uses the term "ridiculous shoes" to describe the footwear he's about to try - he then remarks that people are laughing at him. Throughout the whole exercise, while he keeps remarking on how running in the Vibrams and, later on, in bare feet is not as bad as he thought, he is not convinced barefoot running is for him.

Then they move on to interviewing The Running Room's founder and CEO John Stanton who basically gives his "expert" opinion on how shoes are indeed a better way to go because of the "tremendous science behind" the development of "shoe technology". He also remarks that he tried barefoot running once many years ago and thought it was not a good thing for him.

Personally, I think the biggest information gap in this piece is that it fails to inform or recognize that barefoot running (the same as any other sport discipline or technique) is not something that one can pick up in a 5 minute session. Like everything else, and especially after being so over protected for years on end, human feet need to be given the opportunity to get strong and develop a proper thickness in their soles in order to be able to undertake any type of endurance exercise. This, added to the fact that most North Americans are so inclined to wanting "immediate results", definitely is a deterrent for most people to take on something like barefoot walking, let alone running!

I'm not the least bit surprised either Mr. Chipman or Mr. Stanton didn't want to ever run barefoot again: first, they seem pre-convinced that running shoes are the absolute way to go because that's basically the way you're supposed to run in modern North America; and second, they only tried barefoot running for ridiculously short periods of time without any proper guidance and in conditions less than optimal for barefoot running beginners. That is like trying to get a positive opinion on a vegetarian meal from someone who has been used to eat meats all their life sitting next to a barbecue -- that's not happening!

Furthermore, this is the perfect example of the kind of article that feeds off on polar opposites in order to create successful media impact. They start with the barefoot runner and they end with the CEO of a running shoe store chain. Come on! That's like trying to make a good case for a vegetarian lifestyle by interviewing a chef who just opened the first vegetarian restaurant in a fairly sceptical town, and then running over and interviewing the CEO of M&M Meats! I doubt the vegetarian lifestyle or the restaurant would have any good chance of credibility or survival after that exercise.

Talking to a friend, who is a fairly new convert to barefoot running, he told me that at least this kind of pieces get people talking about it... I agreed and I think that's somewhat good, my only problem is that they also get people talking about it with the wrong kind of information or pre-conceptions to start with; therefore, they might end up being damaging for alternative practises and deterrent to those who might be sitting on the fence about these new practises.

Keep 'em bare, keep 'em happy.

Barefoot Moe
Toronto Canada

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