Worst allergy season ever? Prove it!

Media criticism.
May 17 2011 6:28 PM

Bogus Trend of the Week: Worst Allergy Season Ever!

Almost every spring, the press returns with the same wheezing, sneezing, hackneyed story.

A sneeze. Click image to expand.
Where's the proof that this is a historically bad allergy season?

The press would have you believe that spring 2011 is shaping up as the worst allergy season ever. Your response should be to place a finger over one clogged nostril, point your nose at the news sources in question, and blow.

The Wall Street Journal appears to have been the first big media outlet to push the idea this spring with a May 11 piece about allergy season. The ledereports:

It is an annual spring rite as familiar as the prickling of buds along tree branches: For allergy sufferers, the misery of previous years recedes in the face of immediate agony. As eyes start to itch, throats clench and minds cloud, a declaration inevitably circulates across New York: Worst. Allergy. Season. Ever.

Only this time, experts say, it might actually be true—at least in recent memory.

The Journal's primary data point? On April 29, a device at Lincoln Center that tracks the daily pollen count recorded the highest levels ever. But how long has the Lincoln Center device been tracking daily pollen levels? Since 2009, the Journal reports. That's a shallow river of data.

One doctor calls it "the worst season" in the seven years of his Manhattan practice. Elsewhere in the piece, the Journal quotes American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology spokesman Dr. Clifford Bassett, an allergist, who says the volume of phone calls to allergists is up by maybe a factor of three or four. Bassett personally claims to have hired three additional employees to deal with the deluge of patient inquiries. But anecdotes about high numbers of phone calls to allergists do not make spring 2011 the worst allergy season ever.

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To the Journal's credit, it publishes additional evidence to undermine the Allergy Armageddon thesis: A pollen-monitoring site in Armonk, N.Y., puts the spring 2011 count at only the fifth-highest in 12 years. Also, it quotes the manager of the Lincoln Center pollen station saying, "We definitely can't say worst ever" and "It is the worst time of year, that's for sure."

A May 15 Newsday article tries to make the case for worst allergy season ever by reporting that "samples of allergy drugs" at one medical group "have been wiped out." But so what? According to the Journal, the pollen count should "taper by the end of the month," so it's completely logical for allergy-drug samples to be running out. Being surprised about allergy-drug samples running out at the close of spring allergy season is like being surprised that beer samples have run out by the fifth inning at a packed baseball park. The closest Newsday comes to presenting useful data is reporting that the nearest major pollen meter—in Brooklyn—is broken.

The NBC Nightly Newschases the Journal and Newsday with a May 16 report. "Those who say it's been the worst year ever may indeed have a very good point," says anchor Brian Williams. The segment never produces hard data to support his contention. In a Web-only interview with the Nightly News, allergist Dr. Clifford Bassett (him again!), who also appears in the main segment, has it both ways. He states that the pollen count may be the highest he's seen in at least 10 years but insists that spring 2011 is "the worst allergy season I've ever seen as an allergist."

Don't get me wrong. I'm not a pollen denier. I'm all too happy to acknowledge that weather conditions have conspired to boost pollen counts in many areas of the country this spring and to encourage the growth of mold. But I wonder if the anecdotally high number of snotting patients visiting allergists has as much to do with endless TV commercials for allergy drugs as it does from this spring's pollen counts. Do communities that have more allergists record greater numbers of allergy attacks? Now there's an assignment for Nightly News.

As you crank through Nexis or Google, you'll find that the worst-allergy-season-ever story has been a spring perennial for more than a decade: "Quirky Weather Leads to Worst Allergy Season in Memory," states a headline in the April 6, 2010, St. Petersburg Times. From the March 26, 2010, U.S. News & World Report: "Some allergists say the 2010 allergy season may be worse than in recent years because of the heavy late-winter snowstorms that hit parts of the country." The lede to a May 17, 2009, article in the New York Daily Newsreads, "If your allergies are worse than ever this spring, you're not alone. 'Every year, it seems like things are just getting worse and worse,' says Dr. Cascya Charlot, the medical director at Allergy and Asthma Care of Brooklyn in Park Slope." An April 2, 2007, segment on CBS's The Early Showbears this headline: "Prepare Yourself for Allergy Season: This Year Is Likely Going To Be a Tough One for Hay Fever Sufferers." A June 5, 2003, Daily Newsheadline proclaims, "Worst Allergy Season Upon Us: It's Nothing To Wheeze At." The worst-allergy-season assertion is reprised in the April 12, 1998, Daily News, and so on and so on.

Despite the press corps' abiding interest in the topic, very little pollen data exists for reporters to consult. A May 16 Associated Press piece, which is sympathetic to the notion that the current allergy season is "a bigger headache than years past," acknowledges the data shortage in a key sentence:

Pollen counts and allergy attacks vary widely from region to region, locality to locality and day to day, and no one entity tracks the full complexity of their ups and downs across the country.

Without real pollen and allergy data to build on, the press coverage resembles a heavyweight boxer throwing punches in the dark. The press might hit something, but you won't know what until somebody turns on the lights.

******

Thanks to Marc Tracy for the idea and the citations! I have the same allergies year round—how about you? Send your local pollen count to slate.pressbox@gmail.com and blow your nose on my Twitter feed. (Email may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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