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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.

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