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A curious report

When a story may be less than meets the eye

A curious report

My father will be disappointed if I don’t write this column, so here goes. We were having lunch, and he says, “Hey, take a look at this newspaper article and tell me what you think. I’ll be back in five minutes.”

The item, three full columns on B5 of “The Region” section of The Philadelphia Inquirer, next to “Jersey Joe Walcott to get place of honor in Camden,” is titled “Pills May Replace Diapers and Padded Underwear at Stores.” Well now, here’s a game-changer for men over 65, which is 23 million Americans. Good for journalists for jumping on this medical breakthrough.

I start at sentence one: “Adult diaper sales are expected to plummet as results from a clinical trial on a new patented bladder control pill have finally been released.”

Red flag: passive voice, the refuge of scoundrels. Expected by whom? Diaper sales are expected by whom to plummet? Wouldn’t you—if you were a stand-up news guy—say instead something like: “Clinical trials on a new patented bladder control pill, …” followed by an active-voice disinterested report on the specific scientific findings, rather than jumping straight to speculating on a long-term commercial trend? Isn’t the writer “leading the witness”? Like the sneaky DA to the defendant: “Do you have any problems with your boss?”

Passive voice is the refuge of scoundrels. Expected by whom? Diaper sales are expected by whom to plummet?

I reread: “Adult diaper sales are expected to plummet. …” The harried morning commuter, being, like most men, insecure in his knowledge and his place in life’s Inner Ring, does not notice that no substantiation is made for the claim. Sales are expected by whom to plummet? Well, by all right-thinking people, he thinks to himself. Everybody in the country is on board but me!

In the 1930s we read in Life magazine, “20,679 physicians say ‘Luckies’ are less irritating” than other cigarettes. How did we know the claim was true? Because the Lucky Strike ad said so, that’s how. (Note the ring of authenticity in the “679” touch. Not “678” or “670.” If you can’t get them with fake generalizations, get them with fake precision.)

My dad re-enters the room and says, “Is this written by the same guy who writes the articles on a pill for cancer, hair loss, and weight problems?” Me: “I don’t know.” I glance at the byline: “Associated Health Press.” Hmm, sounds like an important organization.

Sounds like “Associated Press,” in fact. I quickly google Associated Press: A U.S.-based, not-for-profit news agency headquartered in New York.

But this is the “Associated Health Press,” and I’m a little leery. That’s because decades ago I was taken in by a concert of the Vienna Boys Choir at a local theater. Except that it wasn’t exactly the Vienna Boys Choir, turns out, but the Vienna Choir of Boys, or the Vienna Singers Who Are Boys, or some facsimile or other. I would never have noticed the bait-and-switch had not the singers’ squirminess and nose-scratching made me do a double take.

I tried to track down the “Associated Health Press,” but there seems to be no such entity except as a shadowy projection of the commercial arm of the manufacturer of the miracle pill. My eyes fly to the top of the article; there in small print is “Advertisement.”

It was the strange familiarity of the diaper pill “news” report to other reports we’ve occasionally read in the papers that must have prompted my father’s question about the author’s identity—some solitary drone he imagines hunched over a typewriter in an underground bunker under a long chute that regularly slides him new products to fit to the boiler plate by changing a word or two. Paragraphs must always begin with the phrases “Scientists believe,” and “Research has shown that,” and “Many [brand name inserted here] users say,” interspersed with testimonials of happy customers.

If I ever start my own company, I shall remember to include the nice touch that “scientists believe” and that “research has shown” regarding my product—since, after all, I consider myself as much a “researcher” as the next guy, and I may have a cousin who took biology and will support me, which counts as “scientific” validation.

Discernment is a gift the Spirit wants for you (Philippians 1:9-10). There never was a greater need than now.


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  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Sat, 09/01/2018 09:09 pm

    I appreciate the lighthearted seriousness of this column.  It reminds me of the constant daily stream of, "Such And Such Causes Stock Market Uptick," headliners on the radio.  Pseudo-reporting like this sounds logical, but really is not upon close inspection.  We need to stay alert to such fallacies.

  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Sun, 09/02/2018 08:02 am

    After 45 years in health care and having patients asking me about these types of  "new" therapies and cures I can't help but chuckle at this piece. For me it gets back to "How do we know what we know?" And in this case who said such and such is true. It is quite the rabbit trail even on occasion in medical journals to track back through the citations to find the seminal research on some topics. But in general it is there. Here it is not!

    One of my favorite recurring statements, because of its ubiquitous presence, on TV ads and on product labels is "Clinically proven" and its variants.  This means nothing. There are no clinical trials posted or referred to. And on the rare occasion that there are, they are bogus poorly designed trials that are intended to show how great the sponsor's product is. 

    This is Fake News at its best. Or worst ,when it draws people away from truly clinically proven therapies. Your reference to the soothing effects of cigarette smoke reminds me of the 19th and early 20th century addiction to so called patent medicines.

    Piso’s Remedy for coughs and colds. This contained extract of cannabis. And Hamlin’s Wizard Oil. The active ingredients were camphor, ammonia, chloroform and turpentine. And the list goes on. Of course we have seen a modern resurgence of this problem and it can be misleading indeed. To quote one 19th century advertising exec’s advice to a novice, "You are starting out on a long up-hill journey, and you must write your advertisements to catch damned fools -- not college professors." Then, after a moment, he added, "and you'll catch just as many college professors as you will of any other sort."

  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Sun, 09/02/2018 07:46 pm

    Steve Shive, if you choose not to answer this question I am fine with that choice.  I do not want to put you on the spot.

    My question:  is the recent push to legalize marijuana based on the same type of fallacious reporting that you discuss?

    My gut says that this fad regarding marijuana's medicinal effects is almost wholly fallacious.  But I am open to changing my mind on the matter with solid evidence.

  • Kevin Abegg
    Posted: Mon, 09/03/2018 10:46 am

    Amen to Phillippians 1:9-10 especially in this day and age.  The tiny "advertisement" line has botherd me for over a decaid now. I actually search for it before reading even front page news. Integrety is truly a rare quality this day and age. Thank you for the article!

  • Judy Farrington
    Posted: Mon, 09/03/2018 11:47 am

    Good news! You made me laugh and I can't stop!!