Wednesday, 26 December 2007

The Press

Lots of smoke, little fire, as bloggers raise nanny-state fears

(“Fark is what fills space when mass media runs out of news.” - Drew Curtis.)

Don Surber has a post (which Glenn Reynolds linked) about a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel article decrying the hazards of sledding without a helmet. The article includes a photo of a Waukesha, Wisconsin police officer using a radar gun to check the speeds of sledders in a county park,[1] and both Surber and Reynolds use that image as the starting point for painting pictures of mandatory-helmets-while-sledding laws and cops handing out “sledding too fast” tickets.

But, at least in this case, it looks like a false alarm. Turns out the J-S story is built around a “recent study” by something called the “Injury Free Coalition for Kids,” which

...compared the average speed of a sled at 19 mph with the average speed of a kid on a bike, which is 10 to 15 mph.
The officer was in the park at the request of the local children’s hospital, not on assignment by local authorities, and used his radar only to see how fast people were going, not to hand out tickets. (The hospital could have accomplished the same thing by borrowing a radar gun from the local baseball coach, but then the story wouldn't have been as photogenic!) Reporter Erin Richards localized things by including the tale of a Waukesha woman who suffered head injuries at age 20 when she sledded into a tree – at midnight,[2] some nice quotes on general sledding safety from the hospital’s injury prevention manager, and another quote from the spokeswoman for a local farm-and-fleet store which (surprise!) just happens to be stocking sledding helmets for the first time!

The article matches several of Drew Curtis’s qualifications for “fark,” i.e., “fake news:” It's based on a “new study” (journalism by press release), and someone is trying to sell something (publicity in place of advertising). It also matches the standard “seasonal template” (do winter-hazard stories in the wintertime) that too many newspapers use to fill space when they run out of ideas. And it ran on the Friday before Christmas, a day when newspapers are ad-fat and news is hard to come by.

But at least for the moment, nobody appears to be calling for new regulations, and thus the blogospherical kerfuffle is premature (although a good way to raise the reader’s blood pressure). The article, which probably would have been spiked on a day with a smaller news hole, is more of an “early warning,” than a “call to (re)action.” (So keep your powder dry.)

One good thing, though: In the process, Don Surber did come up with a great put-down, suitable for keeping in reserve:
The nannies in Wisconsin have uncovered the latest form of PHFWH – people having fun without helmets – sledding.
PHFWH! I'll have to remember to steal that one!


Later: Looks like I agree with Orin Kerr (who posted first).

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[1] How fast were they going? 10 - 17 miles per hour.
[2] Leading one commenter at Surber's site to speculate that there might possibly have been other recreational substances besides snow involved.

Posted by: Old Grouch in The Press at 16:42:19 GMT | No Comments | Add Comment
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