Local News, Shameful Tactics

Early in the afternoon on Monday, Nov. 10, I caught a promo that New York's WABC was running for its 5 p.m. local news broadcast. They were teasing a story about a major “regional recall" of baby formula (search) that had already left “three infants dead.”

As the mother of an 8-month-old, I don’t know if there really are words to describe the alarm and fear incited by this “report.” Without any additional details, I had no way of knowing if the bottle I had just fed my daughter was part of the bad batch the anchor had warned parents was being “pulled from the shelves.”

For the rest of the afternoon, I kept my television tuned to WABC, channel 7, in hopes that just one of the relentless teasers the channel was running for this story would provide some additional information — anything that would help me determine if my daughter had been, or was in imminent danger of being, poisoned.

But despite the dire urgency and frequency with which the anchors trumpeted the report all day, no more information was forthcoming. If I wanted a brand, a supermarket, the nature of the contamination, the sickness it would cause my child, I would apparently have to wait until 5 p.m.

I could not imagine that WABC would sit on this information while babies all over the New York “region” were being fed contaminated formula. What about all the babies who could be poisoned by 5 p.m.? What about all the babies whose parents might not see WABC’s 5 p.m. news? What about all the babies WABC could save if it included even just a brand name in the promos for the story they were running? And why, with the knowledge of this kind of public health threat in their possession, would they not cut into their soap operas and talk shows to air the report immediately?

Of course, when the report finally aired, the motive behind the vagueness of the teasers was instantly clear. The formula was a kosher (search) brand with very limited distribution in the United States. The formula was not contaminated or spoiled, nor had it been tampered with, nor was it in any other way poisonous or toxic.

The formula — the entire brand, not some bad batch — had been found to be lacking thiamine (search), a nutrient vital to the development of a newborn’s nervous system, but claimed to contain thiamine on its label. Babies who are not receiving thiamine are likely to develop potentially deadly nervous system disorders (search), and therefore babies who were on the formula were at substantial risk.

The real kicker, however, was that WABC had clipped the story from an Associated Press report filed from Jerusalem. The “three infants already dead” referred to three infants in Israel who died from nervous system disorders that the Israeli Health Ministry believed were caused by a lack of thiamine, and therefore possibly linked to the formula. And the other 10 infants reported to be in critical condition were also in Israel.

WABC had localized the story by focusing on New York’s Orthodox Jewish (search) communities where the formula brand was widely used, but there were zero reports of infant death or illness linked to the formula in the New York region, or for that matter, in the United States.

And no babies, not in Israel nor the United States, had died directly from drinking the formula.

There’s no question that this was a serious and important story, but there is also no question at all that WABC cruelly and irresponsibly misled its viewers in their promotion of it. First of all, the inclusion of the word “kosher” in its one-line tease would have let millions of viewers right there know that the formula in question was not their brand, and it would have alerted kosher parents to get on the phone with their pediatrician and grocer long before the 5 p.m. news.

Secondly, and even more egregiously, the report led viewers to believe that the formula was contaminated or toxic, and that babies had become ill, or died directly as a result from drinking it. Sure, WABC never used the words “contaminated” or “spoiled.” What they said was, “a major recall of baby formula” and “three infants already dead.” 

Compare, for example, the way the Associate Press reported the story to the way WABC interpreted the story for its local audience.

From the Associated Press:

"Jerusalem — An Israeli company partly owned by American food giant H.J. Heinz Co. has recalled a kosher infant formula after three babies died and 10 others were hospitalized with nervous system disorders that the Health Ministry said were linked to the product."

From WABC news:

“A popular baby formula that may be linked to the deaths of three children is being yanked from store shelves.”

There are two leading formula companies in the United States, Similac (search) and Enfamil (search), and they are essentially the Coke and Pepsi of the baby formula market. The use of the word “popular” in the context WABC used it was not only misleading, but inaccurate. This was a local news broadcast, not the ABC network’s national or world news. Viewers of this broadcast, whether they keep kosher or not, would have no reason to think for a moment that the word “popular” would be used to refer to a product “popular” in another country, or to describe this particular brand in this country.

WABC could have said, “A popular kosher baby formula that may be linked to the deaths of three children in Israel is being yanked from store shelves,” inserting just two words into their lead. In fact, there are myriad ways WABC could have worded its promo that would have let a significant group of people know they were not in danger, while informing a specific group of people that they were at particular risk.

But that would have reduced considerably the number of frantic parents, like me, who kept their remote on channel 7 all afternoon and who made sure not to miss the 5 p.m. news. How better to attract viewers to a broadcast than to scare as many parents as possible with the “news” that they may be feeding something deadly to their children?

I’ve worked in the news media for more than a decade — my entire professional career. I know that even the news must be packaged and sold like any other product. Those who care about such things have been engaged for some time in an interminable debate over the current state of the media and journalism, and I work at a news network that is often a flashpoint in that discussion. But if you really want to know what’s wrong with journalism, you need not look any further than this story.

This was not some pundit personality boosting ratings by being a little outrageous with his opinions, or some celebrity interviewer being too aggressive or obnoxious. This was not an oversight or an unfortunate accident, nor was it the result of inexperience or bumbling judgment. Someone at WABC made a deliberate decision to mislead and frighten the public so that we would tune in at 5 p.m., and it was an unconscionable decision.

Here in New York, WABC’s local news rival on WCBS airs a consumer advocate feature called “Shame on You,” in which they expose unethical and dishonest businesses. Shame on you, WABC.