The story describes a device and related mobile app, called Awair, that monitors air quality in the home and reports the information to users. The story offers little information about how the device could actually benefit users. More importantly, the story makes the air in our homes sound positively terrifying, using language that seems aimed at making homeowners scared of everything from dust to dirty carpets. The lack of quantified benefits — or any information about how accurate the device is — make this story read more like a paid promotion than a news article.
Journalism is more than simply reciting facts. Reporters should ask questions, talk to independent sources, and help readers understand why (or if) something might be important to them. Reporters need to be skeptical critical thinkers, filtering through a sea of information before passing information on to readers in a context that helps the reader understand what’s going on. This story offers readers vague, scary information and points to a specific commercial product as a solution to a problem that readers may not know they had (if they have it at all). Some of the things mentioned in the story, like carbon monoxide poisoning, are legitimate concerns — but the story fails to mention options like carbon monoxide detectors, which would be less expensive options than the tech that the story does focus on. In short, consumers need sources of news that can offer reliable, thoughtful insight into health issues — not news stories that scare readers without offering context or detail.
The story states that the Awair app is free, but that each air monitoring device costs $199 dollars. Presumably, one would need multiple devices to monitor air quality throughout a residence.
Not only are the benefits not quantified, but the potential benefits are not clearly defined at all. Instead, the story makes statements like “[Awair] can help you breathe easier by tracking air quality.” But what are the benefits of knowing the air quality levels via this device compared to other monitors? Or no monitors at all?
The concern here is that the story discusses a series of potential circumstances, many of which are either unlikely to harm human health or would only be potentially harmful to some people. For example, dry air is not a health concern for many people. This creates a potential “overdiagnosis” problem. In other words, using a product like Awair could potentially lead people to be concerned about circumstances that don’t actually threaten their health. This may result in unnecessary worry, stress or anxiety, or in causing people to spend money on treatments or technologies — such as humidifiers or air filtration system — that they don’t need. To be clear, there is a very real market for technologies like humidifiers and air filtration systems, but not everyone needs them. The story doesn’t address these issues at all. Also, potential harm could come from false positives in the tracking device, but that isn’t addressed, either.
The headline states that this device “helps you breathe easier.” But other than an endorsement from the company that makes it, the story offers no evidence that the device works at all.
Disease mongering is when a potential problem is exaggerated, or when a story describes a risk factor as if it’s a disease. And this story is guilty on both counts. For example, among the litany of possible air quality problems in a home, the story states “Different sources of air pollution in your home could include paints that release lead or volatile organic compounds (VOCs), carpets that harbor dirt, dust mites, and fungus and even nitrogen dioxide from gas stoves.” The story goes on to say “…but these aren’t the worst culprits” — yikes! In fact, the story tells readers, “Every room in your house could be susceptive to some form of an air pollutant.” Unfortunately, the story doesn’t tell readers why they should be worried about any of these things. Even when mentioning carbon monoxide poisoning, the story doesn’t explain why carbon monoxide poisoning is dangerous or how dangerous it is. In fact, the only air quality issue for which the story articulates any specific health risk is dry air, when the story tells readers that low humidity can make asthma worse or exacerbate nasal infections in some people.
This is satisfactory, but barely. The story does quote a physician with no obvious ties to Awair about how air quality may affect health. What’s not clear is why the reporter chose to spoke to the physician, who specializes in rheumatism, arthritis and related ailments. More importantly, the story is missing any independent sources who can weigh in on Awair, or how effective it may be at reducing any kind of health risk.
The story does not talk about any of the other air quality monitoring devices that are on the market, at all. And there are a lot of them. We’ll come back to this under “Novelty.”
It’s clear from the story that the device and app are already available.
According to the story, “Awair is the first smart air quality device that monitors, analyzes and provides feedback to improve the air you breathe.” Yet here’s an online article from 2014 titled “6 Smart Interior Air Quality Monitors You Should Buy For Your Home” — not to mention this or this. That’s not to say that any of these products work, or that we can offer insights into how well they work relative to Awair. It does drive home, however, that Awair may not be as novel as the story makes it out to be. For readers to truly understand what makes Awair different (if it is different), the story would have had to articulate its novelty in the context of a marketplace that is crowded with air quality monitoring devices.
The story does not appear to stem from a specific news release.