No doubt you saw the story in The Sun in the UK a few days ago about the Californian couple who live on fresh air?
“A ‘BREATHARIAN’ mum-and-dad of two have barely eaten for nine years as they live off ‘the universe’s energy’.
The Sun reported that “Husband and wife Akahi Ricardo and Camila Castello believe that humans can be sustained solely by the energy of the universe”.
But not quite.
The article went on to say that the couple and their children, aged five and two, “have barely eaten more than a piece of fruit or some vegie broth three times a week since 2008”.
So the energy of the universe – and a bit of fruit and soup.
They feel so much better and can stop wasting money on food and spend it on travel instead, the report said.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. And millions of people in the rest of the world die of hunger-related causes each year simply because they don’t know how to access the energy of the universe – or don’t have access to fruit and soup three times a week.
No doubt you dismissed this story as the obvious bullshit that it was – just part of the epidemic of fake news – obvious because not one of the couple’s claims were challenged by the reporter.
The only questions came from readers’ comments.
One reader justly chastised the article for the harm it would do teenagers already suffering from eating disorders such as anorexia.
Another quipped that we should take this type of “news” with a pinch of salt.
But there is one aspect of this story that deserves our attention and it is not the ludicrous and harmful content – but the journalism, or lack of it.
As a former journalist of 35 years and journalism trainer for more than 10 years, I am appalled that such stories even make it to newspapers like The Sun.
There is a story here, but it is not this one.
The real story is how the media can justify the promotion of such dangerous ignorance.
Real journalism means challenging questionable claims – whether they come from the President of the United States or people claiming to live on fresh air.
It means getting not just getting two sides of the story, but all sides of the story.
It means not just writing clearly, but thinking clearly.
It means turning information into knowledge.
When I was teaching journalism, some of the key questions my cadets were asked to consider when writing stories were “What does it mean for my readers?” And “Is there another side?”
The tragic other side to this story is the millions in the developing world who die of hunger-related causes every year, many of them children (see below), while the rest of the world gorges itself on recreational food.
The sad truth is that this story is just another example of the growing trend to reject science and embrace ignorance in the quest for special status in a world where being noticed has become just as necessary as food and water.
I’m disappointed that despite the great improvements in the education of journalists since I was a cadet, and the many journalists today risking their lives and careers to discover and write the truth, such fakery still passes for news.
Disappointed, but not surprised.
I remember a similar situation when I was teaching journalism to local newspaper cadets and a “ghost hunter” came to town. Our unquestioning young reporters gleefully gave this charlatan front-page coverage on the grounds that it was “a good story”, a bit of fun and entertainment for readers.
It might have been entertainment but it wasn’t news and the charlatan ghost-hunter was making a fortune from the scam – a scam that the newspaper risked its own credibility to promote.
Real news would have been a story questioning what service this guy was actually providing and how many people he had ripped off in the process – and why the better educated we are, the more gullible we seem to become.
But those stories require time, investigation and resources.
In these days of click bait, stories like this, that attract ridicule, outrage, confusion and incredulity, are the ones that are retweeted and shared as people try to make sense of them or send them to their friends as jokes.
But it is no joke when real damage is done – not only in the tragic deaths that have occurred since the promotion of Breatharianism – one in Australia and one in Switzerland – but the damage to the credibility of journalism and journalists, and to the real plight of people who suffer hunger-related diseases and death, not because there is a worldwide shortage of food but because of the gross shortage of understanding, empathy and political goodwill.
For the facts on world hunger: