Journalists: don’t use the term “massive” heart attack if you don’t know what you’re talking about

A popular ex-Minneapolis mayor, 58-year old R.T. Rybak, had just left office last week.

Then, yesterday, a local hospital announced:

“Former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak came to the Abbott Northwestern Hospital Emergency Department about 1 p.m. today by ambulance complaining of shortness of breath and chest pains after cross-country skiing 7.7 miles in Theodore Wirth Park. He was taken to the Abbott Northwestern Hospital cardiac catheterization lab where doctors performed an angioplasty and inserted two stents. He is now resting comfortably.”

Very quickly, the term “massive heart attack” started going viral among Minnesota news organizations and on Twitter and Facebook.

KARE 11 – the NBC station in Minneapolis – apparently led the way, reporting that “Multiple sources confirm that former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak suffered a massive heart attack on Saturday morning.”

Two and a half hours later, Rybak was tweeting from the hospital:

“My cardiac surprise/Gave me quite a start/But it proves this politician/Has a great big heart.”





On Twitter and Facebook, readers questioned the use of the term “massive heart attack.”  Examples:

  • “The phrase ‘massive heart attack’ is a big one. I hope you are correct.”
  • “Really? Massive? Hyperbolic much?”
  • “some sources are reporting chest pains, not necessarily massive heart attack.”
  • “Not a ‘massive heart attack’! Have some responsibility for yourself.”
  • “It wasn’t a ‘massive heart attack’! He had chest pains and was conscious the whole time. WTF.”
  • “I don’t like sensationalism. People are so easily manipulated into hysteria. It is a tendency that I feel justified discouraging”
  • “It’s just so irresponsible. Makes a bunch of people more worried than they need to be. And for what?! Ratings?’
  • “I question the word ‘massive”” in the headline.”
  • “Solid reporting there.  Well, except for it being wrong and all re: massive.”

“Massive heart attack” was used up by at least the following sources, maybe more:

  • WCCO radio and TV
  • Huffington Post

But it was the re-tweeting of a message from a KARE reporter – in which she used the “massive heart attack” claim – that may have reached the most eyeballs.

Meantime, the Star Tribune reported in a story that was updated early the next day:

“His former spokesman, John Stiles, described the heart attack as “serious,” but said Rybak will be released in several days.”

All heart attacks are serious.  Not all are “massive.”

I’m writing this blog post at 1:43 on Sunday afternoon.  13 minutes ago, KARE updated its story and left “massive” in place.

Does a reporter and a news organization that uses that term even know what it refers to?

The Texas Heart Institute – one of the busiest heart treatment centers in the world for a long time – believes that some people confuse “massive heart attack” with sudden cardiac arrest, which technically isn’t a heart attack in the way the term “heart attack” has come to be used over time., in an explainer after Yankees owner George Steinbrenner died, addressed public and journalistic confusion over what “massive” heart attack means:

“It’s just like a regular heart attack, but it affects more of the organ. Physicians might use the phrase “massive heart attack” to describe a myocardial infarction that destroys a large amount of tissue—say, more than 25 percent of the total heart muscle. …Reporters often describe sudden-death scenarios as “massive heart attacks” even when there’s little evidence that a heart attack has occurred. …A “massive heart attack” won’t necessarily kill you—the phrase refers only to the destruction of heart muscle, not to the stoppage of the heart. (On the other hand, a heart attack that happens to get you in a sensitive spot can cause sudden cardiac arrest.)”

“Massive heart attack” is a vague, frightening, dangerous term to be throwing around in the absence of evidence.  I know how I reacted when I read the news yesterday; many other readers’ comments showed that they thought Rybak was dead or dying imminently.

I’m not aware that any of the other local TV stations in Minneapolis-Saint Paul used the term “massive heart attack.”  Anyone who didn’t should be commended for their restraint and editorial judgment.

KARE should be embarrassed.  They can cite “multiple sources” all they want but they’re guilty of attribution to anonymous sources on something that no one else seemed to hear.  They may be proud of that “exclusivity” and what it did for ratings.  I wouldn’t be proud about this.


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