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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Thursday 18th April 2013

The motto of the New York Times, "All the News That's Fit to Print", isn’t true. It certainly wasn’t true when first coined and even today, with the infinite capacity of online publishing it is still not true. No news organisation publishes all the news; that would simply be impossible. Instead editors make judgements about what news is of the most significance, today, and publish that. Stories that would never appear in November get extensive coverage on a quiet day in August and important stories get scant or no coverage if a significant event has taken place.

It is against this background that I’ve been looking at the coverage of the ‘white powder in letters’ story and the way it has developed since I wrote, briefly, about it yesterday.

Ricinus communis, castor oil plant

Ricinus communis, castor oil plant

The news that a similar letter to that addressed to Senator Wicker was intercepted in mail addressed to President Obama surprised me. Why announce that you’ve found it and that you know who sent it ahead of arresting that person? Is this the only suspicious piece of mail sent the president this year? I would be surprised if it were and I would assume that, most times, the sender is identified and arrested and there may be a couple of paragraphs in some local paper noting the arrest of a demented individual for misusing the mail service.

But, in the wake of the tragic event in Boston, the letter to Sen. Wicker becomes much bigger news and, when another turns up at the White House mail screening facility, the media goes crazy.

My Google Alert for ‘ricin’ usually produces no more than one or two stories each day. Today’s contained 45. Add to that the links posted to Twitter but not included by Google and there is a huge amount of reporting. I could not review all of it or even mention all of the stories.

Browsing through, I was pleasantly struck by the number that were not following the ‘we’re all going to die’ line and I think some of those are worthy of mention.

If only one of the following pieces had appeared I might be tempted to go through in detail and pick out those points where the rational coverage broke down but with this number I shan’t try and do so. These pieces then get a ‘highly commended, good effort’ rather than an ‘excellent’.

Ricinus communis, castor oil plant

Ricinus communis, castor oil plant

More people read headlines than read the opening paragraphs and more people read the opening paragraphs than read the whole story so the pieces that get closest to doing it completely right are those where the headline dispels the hysteria.

Nature’s ‘US ricin attacks are more scary than harmful’ does that perfectly. It may encourage people who are scared to read on and see why they don’t need to be.

The Herald News from Nova Scotia in Canada does a similar job with its ‘Poison ricin creates scares more than deaths’.

The Associated Press does pretty well with ‘Ricin: A bioterror agent with few real victims’  though it would have been better to say ‘alleged’ or to have put quote marks round ‘bioterror agent’.

Outside the mainstream media Leon Gussow in the Poison Review headlines a brief piece ‘Ricin danger mostly theoretical’ that includes a link to a 2004 piece by him in Emergency Medicine News entitled ‘Despite Popular Belief, Ricin Rarely Produces Fatal Outcome’

The Post Bulletin from Rochester Minnesota has ‘Reid: Letter with ricin or poison sent to senator’. ‘Other poison’ would have dispelled any thought that ricin wasn’t a poison but it is not the first time a punchy headline has created the possibility of misunderstanding.

Filling the crossover from headline to opening paragraphs, the BBC's “Ricin' found in letter to US Senator Roger Wicker’ has the ricin in quotes and says in graph one ‘A letter that has tested positive for the lethal toxin ricin or another poisonous substance’ (emphasis added) so the reader is immediately made aware that the presence of the toxin is unconfirmed.

Ricinus communis, castor oil plant

Ricinus communis, castor oil plant

George Smith, in his Dick Destiny persona deserves special mention because the second sentence of his opening graph says;

And it puts to the lie the brain dead assertion, repeated much by the media in the last 24 hours, that ricin is easy to make.

I said I would be concentrating on those reports that had gone some way to getting the ricin story right but I have to mention one story that disappointed me. I’m normally impressed by the way Deborah Blum writes about poisons so I was saddened to see that her piece ‘About Ricin’ for Wired contained in its first sentence the phrase ‘the notoriously lethal poison ricin’. Now, I realise there is a difference between something being 'notoriously lethal' and being actually 'lethal' but I fear that may be too fine a distinction.

Still, the arrest of a suspect who ‘believed he had uncovered a conspiracy to sell human body parts on the black market and sometimes performed as an Elvis Presley impersonator’ according to suggests that this particular storm in a teacup will quickly abate.

That may mean the definitive test results, expected within 48 hours, to determine exactly what was in these letters don’t fall into the definition of ‘all the news that’s fit to print’ for nearly so many media sources.


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