We’ve all seen the commercials for the nightly news: “Exclusively on Channel 5 … the common household item that can cause death!” Of course, we all know that there are literally dozens of things in every house right now that could somehow cause death – bleach, cleansers, bug spray, that six month-old yogurt lurking somewhere in my refrigerator – but, in today’s 24-hour news cycle, in which everyone is competing for readers and viewers, the old maxim “if it bleeds, it leads” has never been more true.
What this has resulted in is reporters needing the “sexy” headline, every time. This means that research is often simplified to the extent that what is being reported isn’t actually what the researchers found, and any possible negative effect is blown out of proportion in an effort to get people to watch or read. Recent examples of this include “Swimming in Chlorinated Pools Can Lead to Cancer” and “‘Twilight’ Altering Teen Minds?” And most of us remember the undeserved hype given to H1N1.
While the Internet is notorious for the misinformation found in it, there are still sites that take a critical look at these stories. One of the sites I visit regularly, Gawker, just posted an article highlighting an Associated Press story about a drug-resistant “superbug” that began with the sentence, “An infectious-disease nightmare is unfolding.” How so? Three people in the United States and two others in Canada who recently received health care in India got urinary or abdominal infections. Geez, all I have to do is think about Indian food and my stomach starts reacting negatively!
“It's been way too long since we had a nice public health panic, so thank God the AP has alerted us to the problem of ‘drug-resistant superbugs,’ which, bolstered by ‘an alarming new gene’ that makes them resistant to most antibiotics, have already infected three whole people in the United States and two in Canada,” wrote the Gawker reporter, Max Read. “None of them have died, but they totally could have! Probably! I mean, eventually, if they hadn't been successfully treated, they definitely would have died.”
It’s played for laughs, of course, but the scare tactic the story highlights can have real consequences. People can start to overuse antibiotics, lessening their effectiveness. They can avoid going to the hospital when it’s necessary, out of fear of the “superbugs” that are lying in wait for them.
We live in an age of information overload, and people often don’t take the time to look at the news they receive critically. Our job, as KT professionals, is to help people make sense of the information they receive. We are responsible for getting information out there to the public or legislators or whoever our audience is in a timely, understandable manner. Now that the news beast needs feeding on a constant basis, our jobs have never been more important.