Media Accountability

For those who like to rant about the Korean media and its promulgation of bogus urban myths and the like, US papers (and presumably Canadian ones) are not above reproach. (PDF there, just warning you.)

It seems that suicide rates actually don’t go up in the US around the holidays:

Newspapers are close to putting to rest the myth that the holidays increase the risk of suicide. A new study shows a dramatic drop in articles that – despite having no basis in fact – attribute the arrival of the holiday season with an uptick in suicides.

An analysis of newspaper reporting released today by the Annenberg Public Policy Center shows that only nine percent of articles written during last year’s holiday season (2006-2007) about suicides perpetuated the myth. That represents a statistically significant drop from the previous holiday period when more than 50 percent supported the myth (see Table 1). The majority of last season’s stories debunked the myth.

The rate of suicide in the U.S. is lowest in December, and peaks in the spring and fall. Data collected by the National Center for Health Statistics (see Figure 1 below) show that this pattern has not changed through 2004, the most recent year for which national data are available.

There are differences. If suicide rates aren’t higher, even when newspapers report it, then the idea that the reports cause suicides might be ridiculous, whilst newspaper reports in Korea on fan death do affect how many people use (or fail to us) technology to make their homes more livable during the hot summer months.

However, even that’s relatively innocuous compared to the way the media promulgates myths about kimchi being a cure for various illnesses, or affording protection from others (like SARS and avian influenza). These are claims which seem to have no basis in scientific fact, at least not if we’re counting scientific fact as “published in a peer reviewed, internationally recognized journal.” Because, really, if kimchi could help protect people from SARS — a respiratory illness, after all! — don’t you think the medical establishment would have taken interest in it by now?

What worries me is whether these kinds of myths might affect treatment-seeking patterns of ill individuals during a disease outbreak. Maybe someone at the KCDC has thought of this, but I don’t know.

In any case, what really rocks my world is that someplace like the Annenberg Public Policy Center exists. I don’t know its political leanings, if any, but I do wonder whether someone’s counting articles mentioning fan death or kimchi’s magical properties here, much less holding newspapers accountable for reporting unscientific claims or reporting on the rate of increase or decline in doing so. But it seems like a good idea.

6 thoughts on “Media Accountability

  1. After your recent posts on celebrity suicides, when I saw the words “fan death,” I thought you meant devotees/fans of some celebrity or other were committing suicide and I wondered what that had to do with making homes more livable in the summer. Then I decided it made much more sense if the electric fans themselves were dying in the summer–possibly jumping out of windows because of overwork. ;-)

    (That reminds me of a 3D animation short I saw about ten years ago. A table fan was looking out the window, saw a helicopter flying overhead, and decided that being a helicopter was much cooler than being a fan. [Oops, sorry for the pun.] So the fan turns its head so that its blades are horizontal, and what do you know? It starts hovering off the table and then zooms over toward the open window. Just as it passes the window sill into the empty sky, free at last, the electrical cord trailing behind it gets stretched too far and the plug pops out of the socket.)

    But seriously, are there murderous, possessed fans on the rampage in Korea during the summer? What is “fan death”?

  2. Tinatsu: I thought the same exact thing the first time I heard the term. What it refers to, though, is the belief that electric fans in an enclosed room can somehow reduce the amount of oxygen in said room, leading to suffocation. How exactly this happens, there is no real consensus.

    For more information, look up “fan death” on Wikipedia.

  3. LOL or see…

    Aw, is gone! Shoot! That was a fun site. Ah well, then yes, Wikipedia is the place to look at.

    By the way, I’m shocked to discover that even the government believes in Fan death, at least, their 2006 official position is that it’s killer #5 here during the summer is, well, amazing.

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