Five-Star Friday – and one local TV news dud

Rating stars checkboxKudos for a couple of journalism gems this week.

Sarah Kliff’s piece on Vox, “Do no harm”  There’s an infection hospitals can nearly always prevent. Why don’t they?

Peter Whoriskey’s story in the Washington Post, “Fish oil pills: A $1.2 billion industry built, so far, on empty promises.”

Ivan Oransky’s MedPage Today blog post, “A Retracted Story About the OR Raises Questions.”  Trust is a very tricky subject.

And then one other caught our eye for fear-mongering, failure to educate, and questionable – but sponsored juxtaposition.

WCCO (CBS) in Minneapolis reported from Lake Minnewaska after a teenage swimmer died – to use WCCO’s words – after he “contracted a brain-eating amoeba” in the lake.  There was very little education in the piece.  Just a lot of vapid, vague, drama using terms such as:

  • “Scare Unsettles Visitors”
  • “the death…rippled throughout the community”
  • “Lifeguards say the beach has been quiet this week, and until Thursday they didn’t see even one swimmer enter the water.”
  • “There’s an extra stillness in the town, an extra heaviness.”

The one helpful piece of information came in this short interview clip:

“Swimming in Lake Minnewaska is as safe as swimming in any lake in the nation,” said Sharon Braaten of Horizon Public Health. “The fact there has been one confirmed case from this lake does not make the lake more dangerous.”

At times like this, journalists can inform – or they can whip fears into a frenzy.  There could have been some education – such as the local Star Tribune newspaper provided:

“The infection is considered extremely rare — fewer than 130 deaths have been confirmed nationally since 1962. …the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tested (ten lakes) in Washington County between 2010 and 2014. Six tested positive for the amoeba in 2010, but no trace was found in any of the water samples in 2013 or 2014. Infections are rare, even when Naegleria fowleri is in a body of water.”

Or, as Minnesota Public Radio provided:

“Naegleria can be found in fresh water all over the world,” she said. “It can be found in lower temperatures and your risk would increase as water temperatures go up. But there is a risk even when [temperatures are] lower.”

That risk is still extremely low, Robinson said.

Officials at the CDC say at least 133 people have been infected by the amoeba in the United States over the last five decades. Most infections have been traced to contaminated recreational water.

However, a few people have been infected after rinsing their noses with tap water, and at least one child was sickened after using a backyard Slip ‘N Slide, CDC officials say.

Agency officials say people cannot contract the infection from drinking water contaminated with Naegleria.

Going to the lake 1But WCCO didn’t provide that kind of background. And it’s not as if they didn’t have airtime to do so.  Instead, moments later in the newscast, it was all giddy smiles as two WCCO anchors continued the summertime sponsored “Goin’ To The Lake” series, coming live from another lake in the state.  Did no one at WCCO see the connection between the sad Lake Minnewaska story and the giddiness of the live co-anchor gig at another lake? But sponsorship may have driven the decision to forge ahead with frolicking at the lake.

The “Goin’ To The Lake” series is sponsored by Medica, a health insurance company.

WCCO Medica Goin' To The Lake


So while we applaud the five-star efforts mentioned earlier, this TV newscast gets 0 stars for public health education and for journalistic judgment.


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