February 26, 2009

Don't panic. Beer pong only idiotic, not deadly.

safepong.jpgThis week Fox News [video] and the web site of NBC's LA affiliate have both reported that the drinking game beer pong has been linked to the spread of the flu, mononucleosis and herpes.

They're picking up on rumors -- in the form of typically shoddy college newspaper articles -- that have been bouncing around campuses for a few weeks now. The most direct source was probably an article in the UMass Amherst Daily Collegian, currently available only on Google cache probably because it got heavily Digged.

I first noticed this trendlette after Yahoo News fronted the Fox & Friends segment. The segment was typically jokey, but what was most odd was that it was almost completely unsourced. They had a pretty lady doctor on hand to say that, yes, people can get sick from sharing beer cups (or, she might have added, coffee cups or pencils), but that's hardly news. The heavy lifting was done entirely by the on-screen chyron which said, "CDC warns of spreading diseases." The Yahoo News headline similarly credited the CDC.

The CDC weighing in beer pong? Really? The NBC-LA web story was more specific: "According to the Center for Disease Control, reports of the virus in 2008 were up 230 percent from 2007 in people ages 17-21." That same statistic is quoted in the Collegian piece, which adds, "and it's all from sharing cups." But the NBC goes the next step and lists the CDC's "safe ponging" tips, which include, "Use the waterfall method."

Um, yeah. I'm sure the CDC said that.

It wasn't hard to track down the first citation of this alleged study, from July 21, 2008 on a College Humor knockoff site called Banned in Hollywood. That article (credited to the AP) quotes not only the CDC generally, as the current stories do, but a spokesman named Dr. Cole Desorio. When a commenter wrote that the story sounded bogus, the original writer replied, "Do me a favor. Step one, say Cole Desorio out loud. Step two, kill yourself."

The would-be satirist's error, clearly, was in underestimating the extent to which the heady combination of alcohol, sex, and young people -- the cornerstone of so many urban legends -- inevitably leads journalists to override whatever bullshit detectors they have. Perhaps had the initial humor piece been even remotely funny, everyone would have known not to take it seriously. But "Cole Desorio" was the only clue. Everything else was played straight down the line. It took only the shift in emphasis from herpes to mono (and the removal of the terrible pun) to turn this into a Weird News story that sounds perfectly plausible -- at least to drunken college students and Fox News editors.

In response to a query from this blogger (because, ahem, even when you know something to be true it still doesn't hurt to actually check), CDC Senior Press Officer Karen Hunter replied:

You are correct, it is bogus. CDC has not studied beer pong and transmission of diseases, so would not have anything to say about this issue. We are putting the following disclaimer on the CDC pressroom site: Alleged CDC Beer Pong/Herpes Simplex study is a HOAX Recent news stories about an alleged CDC study showing a possible link between the drinking game, Beer Pong, and herpes simplex 1, the virus that causes cold sores, are false. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not publish the referenced article .

Since I have complete confidence that reporters will check the CDC pressroom site rather than just do a Google search, I'm sure you will not be hearing this story... repeatedly for months to come.

Posted by Daniel Radosh


I have to defend my alma mater here. The UMass Amherst Daily Collegian does not publish "typically shoddy college newspaper articles." The Collegian only publishes articles with an exceptional degree of shoddiness. There's nothing "typical" about it.

College newspapers are great sources. Remember the "Toyota Prius pollutes more than a Hummer" thing bouncing around? I Google'd it and found loads of related articles. But a closer look showed that all the articles were worded the same, and all stemmed from a Western CT State U undergrad editorial piece. One source.
Similarly, there was a story going around about a woman claiming she wrote The Matrix (and The Terminator and others). All reports - this time including CNN - were worded in eerily the same way. A quick search got me to a Utah or Idaho college newspaper (I don't recall), where to get "the full story" I would have to enter my personal info for a free membership.

Fox News always does its homework;) This weekend the banner said that the combination of heavy smoking and obesity resultsed in a 60% chance of death. No qualifier. I am thinking of doing this since I was raised to beleive I had a 100% chance of death!

Straight down the line? If anything the article isn't subtle enough. The running metaphor of beer pong for unprotected sex ("prohibition-only alcohol education," red cups being distributed in the dorms, etc), the "beirut is not a safe alternative to beer pong" (when both are the same game). It was laden with things that should have given it away to any intelligent observer. Which explains why Fox News missed it.

I go to UMass Amherst and read your blog all the time. Is it wrong that my initial reaction to this post was to feel somewhat honored that my school newspaper got a mention?

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