Friday, July 28, 2006

Sometimes, there are really problems with the media

Way back in November, you may have heard the story about the 15-year-old girl who died of an allergic reaction after kissing her boyfriend, who had eaten a peanut butter sandwich nine hours earlier. An article about nut allergies on Slate got me thinking about the case again, and the fact that while I had heard some reports that the peanut allergy hadn't actually caused the girl's death, I couldn't recall ever reading anything concrete about the actual cause of death.

In fact, the top two returns to a Google search of the girl's name (Christina Desforges) are two articles that still cite the peanut butter kiss as the cause of death. The third link, however, is the actual coroner's report, which lists the cause of death as a severe asthma attack, and NOT an allergic reaction. (You can view the report here.)

As Emily Bazelon discusses in her article on Slate, there are real cases of severe allergies, and reactions to minute exposures, sometimes even to airborne particles. As a parent, I have sympathy for the nightmare of losing your child to something that neither you nor they could do anything about. At the same time, in dealing with public heath issues, hysteria and misinformation are often the greatest enemies. We'll be best able to deal with severe food allergies, as Bazelon states, if we really know what we're dealing with instead of dealing by default with the worst possible scenario.

I think that the Desforges case is likely to become something of an urban legend, especially since it contains just the right amount of possible sexual transgression to justify the "punishment" of death. ("Did you hear about the girl who DIED after kissing her boyfriend?") It would have been great to see some sort of follow-up to the original "peanut kiss of death" stories on a sufficient scale to correct the record.

But then, publishing corrections has always been a problem in the mass media, and far more so in the broadcast media world. We often hear about bias being the biggest problem with modern media, but I've never given that argument much credit. I think we suffer far more from sensationalism and sound bites.

(Editor's note: There is an aspect of mea culpa in this post. Back in November I participated in some of the hysteria when Snarkmarket originally brought the case to my attention. Consider this my attempt to print a correction of sufficient scale to try and correct the record.)

1 comment:

Theresa said...

Food allergies are so serious, and I'm glad that this had shed a little light on that topic. However, I also heard it was asthma, not the nut allergy that killed her. The kiss was 9 hours (I'm pretty sure) after a peanut butter sandwich was consumed. But you'd think if she had such severe allergies and asthma, there would be an Epi-pen or inhaler in her purse.