Dear MEL: Caffeine Overdoses & The Lazy Media

Dear MEL (Mia, Ezra & Lorenzo),

I’d love to say there was a time where you could count on everything you read/heard in the media to be true, but there was probably never such a time. The late-19th-century yellow journalism period comes to mind as an easy example, but the choice of sensationalism over truth predated that and never really went away.

In 1964, the New York Times, flag-bearer of capital-J Journalism, grossly and purposely exaggerated the story of the murder of Kitty Genovese in a way that had far-reaching consequences (hey, at least they admit it now). Just last year, Rolling Stone took a pretty big hit for a giant story about A Rape On Campus at the University of Virginia that, turns out, never actually happened.

And then every once in a while, a major publication hires people like Jayson Blair (New York Times) and Stephen Glass (New Republic) to literally just make shit up until someone actually decides to fact-check them.

You shouldn’t take this to mean that everything you read is bullshit, because it’s not. Most reporters bust ass to do good, honest work. Unfortunately, their bosses have priorities for your eyeballs other than feeding you the truth, and the highest among those is to profit from your attention.

A true story and a story that simply grabs your attention are two entirely different things; it’s far easier to profit from you by directing your attention to something shocking or extraordinary that may not actually be true than it is to make money on you based on the boring old truth alone.

In 2017, it’s easier than ever to manipulate you, because our national attention is very highly concentrated in a small handful of places, and none more so than Facebook. And when you combine media folks’ thirst for sensationalist nonsense with an easy venue to spread that nonsense among millions of people at light speed, you get a story like the one we got two days ago:

“South Carolina Teen Dies From Caffeine Overdose”

If you haven’t seen it (seems unlikely) and you want to read it, do a Google search — I’m not linking it here because I’d rather poke myself in the eyeball than add to the problem. But the story — reproduced, cross-linked, posted, tweeted and Snapped by hundreds of media organizations — goes like this:

A South Carolina teenager drank a latte, a Mountain Dew and an energy drink over a period of two morning hours, and then he died. A month later, the coroner declared that the boy died from a “probable arrythmia” caused by a caffeine overdose.

And then the story exploded all over the Internet.

There’s just one problem: the entire story is unsubstantiated bullshit, and should’ve never been reprinted by even one media outlet, let alone hundreds. Here’s why:

The Richland County coroner who made this cause-of-death determination, Gary Watts, is not a doctor. Go ahead, click the link yourself. Gary Watts’s highest level of formal medical training is as an EMT. That’s right, an EMT — the person that drives the ambulance and can put an oxygen mask over your face, but in most cases isn’t even allowed to use needles.

Let’s put it this way: in many states, you know how many courses an EMT certification requires? ONE. ONE FUCKING COURSE. Possibly two. In any case, if you’re reading this and you’re over 18, you can be an EMT by Halloween if you want.

And if you’re reading this and you’re already an EMT, please don’t think I’m shitting on your profession, because I’m not. I’m simply acknowledging that EMT training isn’t sufficient to definitively identify causes of death, especially those that require internal examination. That’s a diagnosis best left to physicians trained to do so.

Watts’s only other claim of any medical-related training on his page is that he received his training to become a board-certified death investigator at the St. Louis University School of Medicine. What he doesn’t mention is that the death investigator training at SLU is a one-week course that costs $850 (add $50 extra if you want to bring a dinner guest to the closing banquet, fyi).

And that’s the sum total of Gary Watts’ medical training. Mind you, plenty more information on his page if you want to hear about his accident-reconstruction experience as a police officer and his innovative approach to traffic management, but anything related to the medical qualifications required to cut open a body and subsequently divine that an extremely modest amount of caffeine ingested one month ago is the definitive answer for why his heart stopped beating…you’re out of luck.

You’d be forgiven if you thought that all coroners were actual doctors. Most people assume this, but it isn’t the case: coroners are usually elected officials who frequently have zero medical experience.

But if you’re a journalist in 2017 on a beat with anything remotely related to death, you damn well ought to have read the ProPublica investigation on the pathetic and terrifying state of death investigation in America. I’ll summarize if for you:

Our country’s death investigation system is plagued by underqualified people. Even in areas lucky enough to have actual physicians doing the autopsies, a healthy chunk of those aren’t trained in forensic pathology. But it’s even worse when you get out in less-populated areas, where the coroner is a part-time job that requires zero medical training. For example, across the way from Mr. Watts in Marlboro County, S.C., the coroner is a part-time job that’s been done by a construction manager for the last 26 years.

So any reporter worth his health insurance who hears the word “coroner” followed by an insistence on a bizarre cause of death ought to be thinking red flag. Doesn’t mean the coroner’s definitely full of shit — it just means, “hmmm, we should look into this further.” Because he/she should know that even extremely qualified, world-class forensic examiners frequently disagree on causes of death, which means even the very best are sometimes wrong. It stands to reason, then, the poorly trained or completely untrained coroners of the world are wrong a hell of a lot more often than that, so an untrained coroner’s firm declaration that coffee and soda killed a healthy teenager ought to be met with extreme skepticism.

But in the case of the overcaffeinated teen, the bizarre death explanation from a sparsely-trained ambulance driver apparently means “accept it as gospel, repurpose it, post it on our Facebook page as fast as we can to get as many clicks as we can so that we can sell more ads around our website.” And cue the millions of parental freakouts all summer every time they see their kid lift a soda to their lips about how “YOU COULD DIE FROM THAT!! DIDN’T YOU HEAR ABOUT THAT KID IN SOUTH CAROLINA?”

The only story I could find that even acknowledged the fact that Watts isn’t a doctor at all and gave zero evidence or reasoning for the “OD-ed on caffeine” determination was from that bastion of responsible journalism, The Today Show:

Watts, who is not a medical doctor, did not give details on how he came to the conclusion that the drinks killed Cripe. He said he did not know what type of energy drink Cripe drank.

“The purpose here today is not to slam Mountain Dew, not to slam cafe lattes, or energy drinks. But what we want to do is to make people understand that these drinks — this amount of caffeine, how it’s ingested, can have dire consequences. And that’s what happened in this case,” Watts said.

So there you have it in two paragraphs: “This guy isn’t a doctor and produced no evidence whatsoever to support his claim, but he definitively states that this is exactly what happened.”

And this is the best news source I’ve found about this story. No others even bother to mention that the guy isn’t a doctor — likely because they didn’t bother to check.

Now, after all this, you might be thinking, “Well…at least the guy has some training…you’re just a writer with zero training, who are you to say the kid didn’t die from caffeine?”

I do have my doubts that caffeine was the actual culprit, though, given the amount that he consumed was about two cups’ worth of the strong coffee I drink before 7 a.m. every day.

But hell, I don’t know that. I don’t have any idea what the kid died from. What do you think I am, an EMT?

But neither does David Watts, and any competent reporter ought to see that.

But that’s the thing, MEL — the media writ large no longer cares about whether what they’re telling you is true. Whether they’re deviously exploiting your eyeballs or they’re simply too incompetent or lazy to fact-check the details is ultimately unimportant.

What matters now is that you have to read the news with a critical eye and not take everything you read at face value. Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass aside, I do feel like there was a time that you actually could trust that most of what you read in the news was true, but that time is long gone.

That’s a painful admission; as you know, I have a master’s in journalism and the Pulitzer family paid for it. I wanted to be a journalist, but honestly, I have never been happier that I abandoned the profession. At least in advertising we’re up front about wanting your money and we don’t pretend to be educating you in the process of taking it out of your pocket.

So beware of reading something and immediately taking it as gospel. Reading should be the beginning of the process of educating yourself, not the end. Because of a lot of lazy editors, millions of people think this poor kid died from something he didn’t die from, and that’s a shame, and it’s stupid.

Don’t be stupid. Do your homework. The media might learn something from you.

Dad xoxo


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