Speaking about the need for critical thinking in media, here’s another scare story [emphasis mine]:
At least 82 children have died in recent years as a result of playing the “choking” game, a bizarre but increasingly common practice, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The game, which involves intentionally trying to choke oneself to create a brief high, has been around for years, but it appears to be spreading. …
The deaths identified by the C.D.C. are based on media reports of the game over the past decade, but more than 60 of the deaths have occurred since 2005. The agency says the number of deaths is probably understated, and other experts agree, noting that choking game deaths, which involve accidental strangulation with a rope or belt, often look like suicides.
Anecdotes do not necessarily equal statistics. Did this data comes from a C.D.C. press release? And it’s also plausible that deaths ruled a choking game accident are actually suicides.
I’m not suggesting that kids engaging in this type of activity isn’t serious or that there isn’t a cause for concern. I never heard of this as a kid, but I know others who did. I’m also smart enough to realize that kids are incredibly short-sighted and possess under-developed skills at considering consequences. But going into speculative hysteria will not protect kids.
From the C.D.C. press release the journalist clearly used as the source, two teen deaths linked to the choking game:
Case 1. In February 2006, an adolescent boy aged 13 years came home from school in a good mood and had dinner with his family. He then went to his bedroom to do his homework. Approximately 1 hour later, his mother went to check on him and discovered him slumped in a corner with a belt around his neck. His face was blue. The mother began cardiopulmonary resuscitation while one of the other children called an ambulance. The boy died at a local hospital 1 hour later. No suicide note was found. The county medical examiner ruled that the death resulted from accidental asphyxiation by hanging. In the weeks following his death, multiple teens told the director of a local counseling agency that the choking game had been played at local parties.
Case 2. In April 2005, an adolescent girl aged 13 years was found dead, hanging from a belt and shoelace made into a noose on the door of her bedroom closet, after her brother went to her room to see why she had not come down for breakfast. No suicide note was found. The medical examiner determined that the teen had died at 9:30 p.m. the previous night. After the teen’s death, the family learned that the girl had confided in a cousin that she recently had played the choking game in the locker room at school and that a group of girls at her school had been suspended for playing the choking game.
Both deaths involve speculation. I’m comfortable that the conclusion from case 2 is an educated guess with a high probability of accuracy. I’m not so sure about case 1. It has signals that may be reasonably interpreted as the choking game, but are those signals enough to merit inclusion as a statistic? Even the more solid case 2 raises that question.
Reporting with journalistic caution seems the most appropriate choice here. Reading through the press release and the article suggests only that the latter is a regurgitation of the former. The ability to organize an argument into a concise package is not journalism.