Great Moments in Journalism
Around the world, news outlets have been reporting on a new study in BMJ, the U.K.’s leading medical journal. In the article, titled “Santa Claus: A Public Health Pariah?,” Australian epidemiologist Nathan Grills meticulously lays out the reasons why Santa Claus is a terrible role model—a danger to children everywhere.
For instance, Grills writes, “Epidemiologically there is a correlation between countries that venerate Santa Claus and those that have high levels of childhood obesity.” The researcher warns that the British tradition of leaving brandy along with the cookies means that Santa would be drunk-driving his sleigh. Santa’s behind-the-reindeer malfeasance also includes “speeding, disregard for road rules, and extreme sports such as roof surfing and chimney jumping. Despite the risks of high speed air travel Santa is never depicted wearing a seatbelt or a helmet.” (Grills somehow forgot to include that Santa is constantly breaking into people’s houses—an obvious invitation for children to become burglars.)
Alerted to the article through a journal press release, news outlets everywhere immediately started reporting on Grills’s article. Headlines proclaimed: “Santa Should Get Off His Sleigh, Jog to Trim Image, Doctor Says”; “Santa Promotes Obesity and Drink-Driving, Claims Health Expert”; and, of course, “Bad Santa.”
Every wire service carried a version of the report. The international wire services AFP and AP wrote that Grills had established a relationship between Santa belief and obesity, and that he also warned against sitting on Santa’s lap: it would lead to the spread of infectious disease. The wire stories were in turn picked up by major news networks and other venues.
Since then, people haven’t been just reporting on Grills’s work: he’s being eviscerated for it.
A reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution blasted him with “Sometimes Scrooge has a medical degree and an Aussie accent.” Another editorial proclaimed that the report was “wasted science” and “downright Grinch-like.”
Around the world, Grills has been attacked as a mean-spirited Christmas killjoy. His e-mail inbox is filled with condemnations. He’s so besieged by angry calls that he won’t answer the telephone, so I couldn’t talk to him for an interview. We had to correspond via e-mail.
Here’s the thing. The entire “study” was a joke. It was satire. You’ve heard of Christmas in July? Well, this was April Fool’s Day in December.
“It’s supposed to be spreading a bit of Christmas cheer,” explains Grills. He wonders if the sense of humor was lost because maybe some of the reporters read the press release but never read the actual article.