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All news is bad news

For much of my life, I lived in or around Fitchburg, Massachusetts.  I moved away when I got married, which was just a few years ago. I still have family and friends in the area, and still have some interest in what goes on there.

So it was with some sadness that I read in Fitchburg’s (truly execrable) newspaper about a possible measles outbreak in the elementary school there. So far it’s unconfirmed, but it wouldn’t surprise me a bit. I do know there’s at least some degree of antivaccination sentiment in the town, and the paper has typically been at least somewhat sympathetic to antivaccinationists.  Where you have antivaccinationists, you tend to have measles outbreaks. It’s the sad truth of our science-averse-but-celebrity-worshipping country that fools like Jenny McCarthy get more attention than experts like Paul Offitt, but there you have it.

As much as I deplore antivaccinationists, that’s not what this post is about. Instead, it’s about a strange turn of phrase used in that newspaper article:

Health and school officials are taking precautions Tuesday after what officials described as a “low suspect” case of measles at South Street Elementary School.

Schools Superintendent Andre Ravenelle described “low suspect” as unconfirmed case but officials are taking precautions to be safe. He said word was sent out to parents on Tuesday explaining the situation.

The strange phrase here is “low suspect,” which appears to be a phrase that Ravenelle made up either because he couldn’t remember the word “unconfirmed” or because he was trying to minimize concern. I wasn’t sure, so I turned to Google for help. What I found was sort of illuminating.

Just a few examples

At the time I’m writing this, there are about 170 hits for “low suspect” + measles, every one of which is about the possible measles outbreak in Fitchburg. Just searching for “low suspect” itself brings up the article as the fourth hit. Further searching does turn up a few isolated instances of the term “low suspect” with regards to SARS or Celiac disease, mostly in the UK.  In these cases, “low suspect” generally meant “unlikely,” not “unconfirmed.”

What this means is that not only is this a term that Superintendent Ravenelle made up/used improperly, it’s also a term that the Sentinel & Enterprise repeated, from which point every other news source ripped it off.  Not exactly shocking, seeing as that’s pretty much all that newspapers do these days. Where it gets fun is in the embellishment.

The other major local paper in the Fitchburg area is the Worcester Telegram, which had this to say: “The student is reported to be a ‘low suspect case’ for measles, according to health officials.”  So not only has Ravenelle somehow become a “health official,” he’s actually become several of them. Well done!

How about TV? New England Cable News felt the need to explain: “There was a low-suspect case at the school, meaning it was unconfirmed.”  Is that so? Maybe they should have called a doctor to see if that was actually what “low-suspect case” means, because I’m fairly confident that isn’t it.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, but is illustrative of one of the big problems with news reporting and the internet. A measles outbreak is a big deal, so you really can’t blame sources from all over the country reporting on it, and by necessity most of those reports are going to be drawn from local media sources. That’s the nice way of saying that they’ll plagiarize the original article.

This sort of works if the original source is a good one, but the Sentinel & Enterprise just isn’t. Ravenelle could have said that this case heralded the end of the world, or that the student got measles because his humours were out of whack and the Sentinel would have printed it without question. It’s easy enough to see what would happen next: everyone else would print the same thing.

I don’t mean to pick on Mr. Ravenelle. He’s a school administrator, not a doctor. He’s bound to say some things that don’t really make sense when you put him on the spot about a medical issue. I was just hoping that the people who consider themselves “reporters” weren’t just a bunch of lazy plagiarists with no fact-checking skills.

Oh well.

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