This past week, a story went viral that calls into question the media's ability to separate fact from fiction, even when handed a story that is obviously not true.
The story centered around a married couple, Akahi Ricardo and Camila Castello, who define themselves as "breatharian." They claim to not need food and water because they possess the ability to live solely off the energy of the universe with comments that this is "not possible when you don't have the state of mind. When your mind doesn't believe it's possible, it won't be possible."
What they failed to mention in the story is that they also eat. They must - there is simply no way around it. Not eating food leads to death - breatharian state of mind or not. It doesn't take a physician, scientist, nutritionist or any other special degree to figure this one out. If you stop eating, your body cannot survive.
As if this needed to be more ridiculous (or dangerous), the couple have children and the story claimed that Castello did not eat anything during her pregnancy. She claimed that “humans can easily be without food — as long as they are connected to the energy that exists in all things and through breathing.”
I am not going to delve into the science to tear apart why this is not possible. That seems like low hanging fruit. What I am more interested is in how the media responded to this story, and, whether they held up to the test of an obviously false story. Putting this story out into the media reminds me of when scientists submit sham papers to journals, just to see if they can get them through the peer review process.
It's as if releasing a story as ridiculous as the breatharian couple was a challenge to the press to see if they are doing a good enough job fact checking, vetting and, well, simply having common sense.
It turns out that the press did not pass the test - at least for the most part.
The article originally appeared on June 15 in the British tabloid The Sun. Other news outlets picked it up including The New York Post, The Independent and several others. These early reports of the couple's lifestyle were written as a description of their no food lifestyle - with little, if any, skepticism that this might be completely implausible.
Thankfully, it did not take long for some people in the media to realize that this story made no sense and to push back on it. Kudos to Snopes for publishing an article just the day after the original came out, calling the claim as false and turning the tide on how the story was being presented in the media.
After it was realized that the idea that people could live without food and water was absolutely ludicrous, even some of the news organizations that first published the original story are now calling themselves out. The New York Post has published two more articles debunking their original story. The first describes experts that are debunking the claims of the breatharians (the same claims that they themselves published.) The second is a follow up from the couple pulling back from their original statements. When they said no food and water, what they meant was, "that they do eat solid foods on a regular basis – just not as much as the next guy."
So, after a flurry of articles about the original story, the media is trying to right their ship that was sinking into idiocy. But, the media should be the gatekeepers of facts. Instead, the media is acting more like a nightclub, letting everyone in at the door and then trying to bounce out the troublemakers once the fight starts. But, like bar fights, it's too late to pull people out after the fight happened. The damage has already been done.
This was a story about people who claim to not eat. There was no fact checking needed - just about one second of thinking. In a world where there are large chunks of people that think that the Earth is flat, vaccines cause autism, the pH of water is important or that chocolate milk comes from brown cows, it is extremely important that we do not put more ridiculous ideas into people's heads. Because as we know all too well - they might just believe them.