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Su Lum: Slumming

Su Lum
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

A couple of weeks ago I heard an NPR news story about an infestation of ticks on a plane that grounded a United Airlines flight, stranding passengers for six hours until a different (clean) plane could be sent in. The tick plane was fumigated, an activity that apparently took even longer than the six hours it took to round up the new plane to make the short hop from Colorado Springs to Denver.

Forty years ago we were camping one night near the Grottos and suddenly noticed that our entire camping area was so alive with dirt-colored spiders that it looked as if the very earth was undulating. This memory sprang immediately to mind when I heard about the ticks on the plane, and I had a vivid mental image of the chaos on board as passengers noticed that their confined space was crawling with thousands of ticks.

The next day, a small Associated Press release raised serious questions about both the ticks and the media coverage. The headline read, “Ticks delay United flight.” And in the body of the copy was the following: “Some wayward ticks delayed a United flight.” “The airline hasn’t figured out how the ticks got on the plane or what type of ticks were found.” “The plane with ticks had begun in Chicago. It was cleaned of ticks, checked and put back into service.”



So far, so good, but buried in the story was the statement, “Between one and three ticks were discovered.” Consider what the AP is saying here. Between ONE and THREE ticks? Does that mean that only TWO ticks were found on the plane?

Or, more likely, that one tick (the source of the scare) was found on the plane, plus a couple of pieces of possible tick-looking lint or crumb or errant booger.



And how long does it take to identify a tick? You Google “tick” and match it up with whatever you have in your tweezers.

Clearly, the thrust of the news story and the AP headline should have been: “One tick delays a United Airlines flight for six hours” or “America is a nation of total wimps.” Instead, the media chose to perpetuate the myth of ticks, lots of ticks, even after the conclusion had been reached, and the salient information included (albeit offhandedly) in the story, that the number of ticks on the United flight was between ONE and THREE.

Another curious item in the story was the statement that, “No ticks were found on passengers,” begging the question, “How did United determine that?” Hunting for ticks on one’s person involves the use of mirrors to check out armpits and other private, warm, moist places to which ticks gravitate and then getting someone else to rake through the hair on your scalp and look behind your ears. Was this the real cause for the six-hour delay ” strip-searching the passengers?

This column was originally going to be about all the false hysteria we live with on a daily basis (e.g., the great tomato scare ” oops, turned out to be jalapenos, sorry tomato growers ” the spinach scare, the ongoing fear of chickens and the conclusion of a recent study that eating tofu causes dementia), but it is really more about how the media handles these episodes of social panic, feeding upon them and perpetuating them.


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