Thursday, June 02, 2005

On Writing: Mediascope

Today (actually, yesterday) marks the first day of my new column for Popular Science magazine. It's called Mediascope, and my goal with it is to let readers know when big science stories are a lot of hype, and to get into the real science behind the headlines (as much as I can in less than 1000 words). My first column, Hype That Breaks Your Heart, digs into the recent media blitz over so-called "Broken Heart Syndrome," but it also tells a bit about why I decided to write this column in the first place:

"When mosquitoes brought West Nile virus to New York, all the papers said it was going to be the next big deadly epidemic (which, of course, it wasn’t). The day the news came out, I was in my garden in Pittsburgh, and a mosquito landed on my arm. I smacked it, then immediately thought, “Oh my god! West Nile virus!” So I ran inside and did something I hadn’t done since grade-school summer camp: I doused myself with insect repellant. Then I got a whiff of the fumes and remembered I just read an article saying insecticides cause Parkinson’s disease!
I’m only slightly ashamed to say I screamed, ran like a girl, and jumped in the shower. Then I came to my senses. I was a trained scientist who knew better than to fall for every this-is-going-to-kill-you headline; if those articles flipped me out, what were they doing to the general public?

"I decided to write an article about the science behind health-media freak-outs. Every epidemiologist I talked to—even those whose research depended on West Nile being a threat—said the coverage was hype. The same was true for most of the stories I investigated: The Impending Mad Cow Disease Epidemic, Hanta Virus Wiping Out the West, The Return of Bubonic Plague—none were completely true to the science. And nothing has changed."

When I turned this column in to my editor, he called me back and said, Come on, don't exaggerage, you didn't really get in the shower after that bug spray thing, did you? I did, I told him, which will come as NO surprise to those of you who know me. I admit it, I'm a bit of a hypochondriac, and honestly, this column should probably be called something like "Hypochondriac's Journal" instead of Mediascope, because more than anything, it's a way for me to investigate the truth behind scary-sounding stories, to decide whether I (and my readers) sould be freaked out by them. Fortunately, the answer so far is no:

You can read the first column about Broken Heart Syndrome here: "Just in time for Valentine’s Day, the news hit that a breakup or a surprise party could kill us. Well, not quite."

And tune in next for next month's column (which will hit news stands in a couple weeks) for my take on the recent embarrasment that was the media coverage of the most recent CDC study on obesity.

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Blogger The Great Andola said...

I read the article and thought it rather nice that someone was willing to point out the media over-inflating an issue. I get tired of all the crap they shove down our throats while (I'm making an assumption here) they laugh all the way to the bank. I thoroughly (is that spelled correctly?) believe we are a society which thrives on hype and drama and never realizes the value which peace and quiet bring. Good job and I hope to continue reading more excellent articles.

7:30 PM  

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