Unhealthful News 215 – Erasing the line between health-related news and entertainment

Chris Snowdon recently (well, fairly recently — I am rather behind on blog reading) wrote a great post about the idiotic coverage of a recent violent attack in Florida (the one that involved a man biting off the face of an innocent bystander, eliciting excited reports about zombie-like behavior, even though everyone knows that zombies eat brains, not faces, to say nothing of the fact that the perpetrator was killed after the attack, not before).  The coverage mostly attributed this to the perpetrator being under the influence of the designer drug, “bath salts”.  To jump to the punchline, the toxicology report eventually found neither this no any other psychoactive drugs in the perpetrator’s body, and the (low-key, probably not noticed by 99% of those who heard the “zombie” and “bath salts” story) coverage of that suggested, “hmm, maybe it has something to do with his history of schizophrenia”.

Just lovely.

But why would a news reporter not want to attribute a bad event to some random new technology?  After all, if one idiot claims “that must be what did it”, it is the job of the press to just blindly report that, right?  I believe that is what Woodward and Bernstein did.

Here is another great example of the same idiocy:

Corrales officials say a fire that burned more than 350 acres of the wooded area along the Rio Grande was most likely sparked by an electronic cigarette.  Village Administrator John Avila says an employee apparently dropped the device while patrolling on June 20. The employee realized the device was gone after ducking under a tree limb. The fire started soon after.

The employee probably urinated in the woods while he was out there too (at least if he was a guy), and that was just about equally likely to be responsible for the fire, as anyone who knows anything about e-cigarettes would realize.  A dropped e-cigarette is no more likely to start a fire than a dropped flashlight, since they are more or less the same thing when lying inertly on the ground (i.e., a battery, in a case, which can be — but was not at the time — connected in circuit with a filament that gets hot).  Indeed, the flashlight would create a greater risk if it were left turned on, which the e-cigarette could not be (unless it was some very strange mod, which seems unlikely).

This would have been obvious to anyone who bothered to talk to anyone who knows anything about e-cigarettes.  Presumably either the employee who used the e-cigarette or the village administrator, whichever one made up this story, did not know anything.  It was fairly stupid of them to make the claim without checking whether it was at all reasonable.  But people make stupid claims sometimes.

A reporter, even one who knows nothing about e-cigarettes (or “bath salts” or zombies) should know that people make stupid claims.  I said that the reporters of these stories were idiots, but that is really letting them off too easy.  What they are is grossly negligent and derelict in their duty, and creating great social harm as a result.

Why do they do this?  Because it makes the news more entertaining to just report rumors and scary stories about technology.  And most reporters today seem to be frustrated entertainers, rather than real journalists.

[Update:  I have explored a few analyses of how some low-quality e-cigarettes could actually fail in a way that would start a fire.  So perhaps it cannot be ruled out.  But “not ruled out” is quite different from “happened” or “is the most likely explanation” or even “is a plausible explanation”.  There is a difference between “assume the fire was caused by an e-cigarette and try to explain how” and “of all the possible causes of a fire, and the rarity of an e-cigarette sitting idle creating ignition temperatures, how reasonable is that explanation?” — that difference is represents how scientists and reporters (real ones) think.  The plausible explanation I liked is that the worker was smoking and thinks that caused it, but was not supposed to be smoking, so make up the a lie that was as close as possible to the truth.]

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