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May 13, 2006 - Let’s Get the Story Straight!

Since I am directly involved in the television industry, I am fully aware that twice a year, in May and November, theTV industry conducts what is called sweeps or ratings months. Audience ratings measured in May and November will determine the price they can charge for advertising for the next six months; so every TV station news department does all the investigative reports and sensational stories it can do to attract as many viewers as possible.

Since everyone in this country eats, they love to do what I call "the food scare stories", with the sensational headlines and promotion announcements. This May is no exception. One of the TV station medical reporters in our headquarters city of Chicago earlier this month did a story headlined "Study says chicken might contain poison" and the opening line stated, "if you eat chicken you may well be eating something else you did not plan to eat, arsenic."

Now that is enough to scare most people who have little or no knowledge of poultry production and, as is often the case, the story didn’t quite support the headline. But, you had to get well into the story before you get a quote from toxicologist, Paul Mushak, who said "I’m not saying that cancer rates are up because of arsenic in chicken; what I am saying is there are enough questions and concerns, that one must be very circumspect."

Then, talking about laboratory tests that were done for the story and the amount of arsenic discovered, the TV medical reporter states "while none of these figures exceed the FDA standard of 500 parts per billion, many samples tested were above what the EPA considers safe for our drinking water, 10 parts per billion.

Somewhere in the story, you did get a quote from Richard Lobb of the National Chicken Council, who said "the limits that are occasionally found are just incredibly infinitesimally minuscule and are no conceivable threat to human health." But I wonder if the viewer even heard that after the poison headline. One consumer, interviewed for the story told the reporter she served her family chicken 3 or 4 times a week, but after hearing about the possibility of arsenic would take a much closer look at how often she has chicken on the menu.

With bird flu stories in the news every day and TV networks doing "scare" dramas on the subject during sweeps month, poultry producers don’t need yet another attack on their product. As journalists we have the obligation to report what’s happening, but we also have the responsibility to base our reports on facts and science, not emotion.

My thoughts on Samuelson Sez.