Posted by: Tony Carson | 25 July, 2007

Quebec lakes teeming with blue-green algae: Parsing a headline

Quebec’s famous lakes are teeming with blue-green algae  — the banner blares and then we learn just how timid the story really is.

Let’s analyze the headline.

First, ‘teeming?’ The story is about blue-green algae ‘blooms’ growing on the surface of a lake. The fish may be teeming beneath the “putrid shade of green,” but the algae? Does algae teem? Teeming is a swarming motion.

Second, we learn in the article that Quebec has half a million lakes.

Third, we learn that “a pall has fallen over this idyllic paradise.”  The “pond scum” can be “toxic, causing skin irritation on contact and liver or nervous system problems when swallowed.” Dreadful stuff.

Fourth — the pay-off:

The Quebec government has posted warnings on the Internet for 72 lakes and rivers people should not drink from — three times the number from last year.

What’s the percentage: 72 of 500,000? Tiny, hardly worth a headline.

Hey, who doubts it is a problem. But it sounds like a relatively contained problem and one caused, as the article points out, by the cottagers who fertilize their lawns. Stop this practice, clean up the lakes and the problem goes away.

The final pay-off is near the end of the article:

“Quebec is no more polluted than other regions around the world,” David Bird, a cyanobacteria specialist with the University of Quebec, Montreal, told AFP.

Newspapers today are teeming with headlines trumpeting disasters. These headlines are often provocative, sensational and irresponsible. And annoying.

Another example today: Airports warned about terror dry runs, then we learn half-way down the article this: “There is no credible, specific threat here,” TSA spokeswoman Ellen Howe said Tuesday. “Don’t panic. We do these things all the time.”

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