Chris Hardie: Chicken costume story unduly ruffles feathers

Chris Hardie: Chicken costume story unduly ruffles feathers

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I certainly made my fair share of mistakes during more than three decades as a journalist. Nothing raises a journalist’s hackles — and the corresponding level of stomach acid — faster than having to publish a correction.

So it was with a mixture of sympathy and incredulity when I heard the cock and bull story about a dangerous bacteria that ruffled some feathers — all over a big misunderstanding.

The story begins with a report from ABC News before Halloween that said that some 92 people in 29 states had been infected with a particularly nasty strain of salmonella after coming into contact with raw chicken products.

The outbreak was true, but part of the story was not. The story said: “When dressing a chicken, whether in a Halloween costume or a sweater, it is easier for a person to come into contact with harmful bacteria that live on poultry, including salmonella, health experts say.” The story went on to say that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was warning chicken owners about the dangers of dressing chickens in Halloween costumes.

That created quite a flap among the handful of chicken owners across the country with both the time and the inclination to consider dressing up a chicken in a costume for Halloween. It also hatched some cackling social media posts showing all sorts of chickens wearing costumes.

To avert a crisis of government overreach and to ax rumors that a caravan of chickens was marching on Washington, the CDC issued a statement explaining that the sky was not falling and to clarify that “despite news reports to the contrary,” officials have “not warned people against dressing (live) chickens in Halloween costumes.” The CDC also followed up with safe guidelines for handling chicken to avoid salmonella.

ABC News published the obligatory correction, which read: “Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to clarify that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises pet chicken owners to handle the animals carefully to keep themselves and their households and healthy. A previous version of this story incorrectly summarized the agency’s guidance as pertaining specifically to Halloween costumes.”

I cannot confirm how ABC News reached its chicken costume faux pas, but I suspect that it had to do with a reporter making an incorrect conclusion. ABC’s story included information from a Louisiana CBS station that had interviewed a woman who dresses up her chicks in costumes every Halloween. That story that was published Oct. 17 still contains the erroneous CDC information.

The CDC did issue an Oct. 17 news advisory about the salmonella outbreak and followed up with safety suggestions like advising chicken owners to never “kiss your birds or snuggle them, and then touch your face or mouth.”

I guess if your pet chicken croaks because of heart failure, strong alcohol should be consumed if mouth-to-beak resuscitation is required.

In fleshing out the story, it’s quite possible that the reporter read about the salmonella risks when one is exposed to raw chicken — particularly when dressing out a chicken. Dressing as in butchering the chicken and removing the innards. That type of chicken dressing I have done many times, but the only costumes they wear are white freezer paper or freezer bags.

Perhaps the reporter looking for a Halloween hook mistakenly crossed the factual road and made the leap to dressing up chickens instead of dressing out chickens. The reporter was probably running around like a chicken with its head cut off trying to work on several stories at once. Trust me, I know that it’s easy to run afowl of the facts when you’re trying to scratch up several stories at once. The grain of truth can become misconstrued even with the best intent.

However, since I’ve flown the full-time journalist coop, I’m still waiting for the Pulitzer poultry-winning chicken story that would feather the nest of any hard-boiled reporters willing to stick their neck out and offer the definitive answer to the eternal question:

Which did come first?


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