Part of teaching microbiology to my students who look to become the health care practitioners of tomorrow is also educating the public at large about the risk of microbes. I take this very seriously and I read as much of the latest research as possible in order to do this. Even a short presentation to an academic audience requires a lot of preparation to provide as much useful and timely information as possible. I am a bit distressed however when I see news reports that distort or twist information in such a way that could cause panic among the general population. Case in point, I was watching the Fox DC morning news yesterday morning when a report came on about drinking fountains and bacteria. As I watched this report, there were some points discussed that I took major issue with. In summation, the research took place in Tampa, Fla along the Pinellas Trail where water fountains are placed for those that traverse the area. Of the ten tested water fountains, water from three contained bacteria commonly found on toilets, cell phones and purse bottoms. First, the sample size of ten cannot be applied to the population of water fountains as a whole. This research (as first reported by the The Suncoast News) states that the Pinellas trail water fountains and others in various sites around the area were being tested for harmful bacteria and to alert county officials of any findings. At no point in this article were any of the researchers making any claims that these findings could be common nationwide. So why was this report delivered in such a way that these and other facts listed in the article were not discussed?
Many factors were ignored in this report in addition to the small sample size. The environment where the water fountains are and the activities that occur at these water fountains. Researchers observed walkers allowing dogs to drink directly from the fountain, so that could account for this area but not all water fountains have this source of bacteria as a problem. Also, if the infrastructure providing the water is intact, how much of a role could the animals in this environment contribute to the increased bacterial numbers? Fox DC in my opinion could create a mini stir among the general population with this report by nit-picking out the major details and focusing on the pieces that made this a “story.” When talking to an audience that wants news and needs to hear as much as the facts as possible, this story does a disservice to all. Explaining scientific concepts or more importantly public health interest research requires that ALL of the facts be laid out and explained in a way that minimizes fear and panic and places emphasis on informing and offering common sense solutions as the research can support. This was a very disappointing job of presenting interesting information for the sake of ratings and sensationalism.