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The Ricin Scare That Wasn't

There are always stories that are headline-worthy because of what they might become. One prime example was this weekend's news that ricin had been found within a roll of coins in a University of Texas dorm. If you were watching cable news, you probably encountered quite a few headlines like "Deadly Poison Discovery," on MSNBC or perhaps, "Ricin Scare" beneath CNN's ever-present "Security Watch" banner. The accompanying reports – doctors providing extensive descriptions of the potential symptoms of Ricin poisoning, anchors noting there is no antidote to ricin poisoning, etc. –soon provided viewers with all of the ingredients to imagine just how awful this scenario might prove to be.

Of course, by Sunday, after more testing following the preliminary results, it became apparent that the substance found in the dorm was not actually ricin.

Yet that turn of events wasn't touted nearly as often or as prominently as previous news that it might be ricin. Especially for readers of the New York Daily News. While news of the initial "Texas Ricin Scare" was duly noted, it doesn't look like the latest news – that it wasn't actually ricin – has warranted any mention in the paper. For the news channels, Sunday's revelation was relegated primarily to briefs within news reports, like this one from anchor Tony Harris:

HARRIS: Well, it's apparently a false alarm on the ricin scare at the University of Texas Austin. Authorities now doubt the powder found in a roll of quarters is Ricin. No one has shown symptoms of exposure to the powerful poison.

A student doing laundry had opened the roll of quarters, which came pre-wrapped from the bank. An early test indicated the powder was ricin, but two new tests came up negative. An Army lab is doing a final test to make sure.

But he didn't end the update without a tidbit of advice worth noting: "And this reminder, stay tuned to CNN day and night for the most reliable news about your security."

I don't think that the news about a potential case of ricin poisoning shouldn't have been reported, but as it often tends to be the case with 24-hour news programming, the sheer volume of coverage tends to make an issue seem more pressing than it actually is. This seemed particularly noticeable during one of CNN's interviews with Dr. Robert Geller, a toxicologist from Emory University. Anchor Betty Nguyen spends the better part of her interview with Geller discussing the origins of ricin and the effects of ricin poisoning, but the most valuable portion of the segment doesn't come until her very last question:

NGUYEN: All right. And I think it's important to note here about the preliminary tests. Just because the preliminary tests say that it is ricin doesn't necessarily mean that the final results will say it's ricin, correct?

GELLER: That's correct. It's very important to understand that a preliminary test is exactly that. It's a faster test designed to err on the side of caution. Everyone would prefer to be safer rather than sorry later, but many of the preliminary tests ultimately come back negative.

But, apparently, that likelihood didn't stop the story from proliferating throughout the day. It seems that in similar situations, it might be wiser to err on the side of not scaring the crap out of viewers.