Attack of the Killer Tomatoes

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A look back at the way the Sun-Sentinel handled this week's overblown tomato scare is truly Help Team journalism at its best.

First you must understand that the tomato story was perfect for newspapers. Think about it -- nothing like deadly tomatoes on a dull news day. Tomatoes are everywhere! In our homes, restaurants, spaghetti sauce, salads ... everywhere. The odds that any Sentinel readers would be affected by the salmonella scare was about the same as one of them getting stuck in a pool drain or killed by a candle (both old Help Team bugaboos). Since April, one person has died nationally with 167 reported ill. And Florida tomatoes weren't affected at all.

But don't let the facts get in the way of a sensational lede story. On Tuesday, the Sun-Sentinel put the story on the front page with a large bold headline headline: "HOLD THE TOMATOES."

The article wasn't about how Browardites were coming down ill. There were, of course, no illnesses here since the tomatoes were fine. The local hook was that some restaurants had pulled tomotoes from their menus even though they were believed to be safe (the entire headline, including the smaller print: "Many Fast-Food Restaurants Say: HOLD THE TOMATOES").

The article itself was basically a primer on different types of tomatoes and the finer points of the salmonella you weren't going to get in Florida.

Fine. Okay. The Sentinel, however, wasn't finished with this juicy story. They put the Help Team on the job and the next day came out with this lead front-page headline: "Florida's tomatoes declared OK to eat."

Forget that Florida's tomatoes were never declared not OK to eat in the first place. Just pass the pizza pie. The article rehashed the previous day's information and, admirably, contained a bit of self-referential criticism on the absurdity of the piece appearing in the newspaper at all:

Also, food safety experts urged consumers to remain cautious about tomatoes and fresh produce, but not to overreact. Keep eating your fruits and veggies, said nutritionist Sheah Rarback, of the University of Miami medical school.

"Outbreaks like this get a lot of press, but we're talking about one or two a year," Rarback said. "It doesn't diminish the importance of getting fruits and vegetables."

Maybe the editors realized the press was indeed unwarranted, because the following day, Thursday, they held the tomato story. Instead, they opted to run a tiny two-bylined substanceless article headlined: "Will Crist be MCCAIN'S CHOICE?" The article was bereft of any news. It just asked the question. Again.

But you should have known those pesky tomatoes couldn't be held down. This morning, the Sentinel again led the newspaper with a THREE-bylined story on the front page headlined: "Tomato scare not over yet."

Wait a second -- I thought there was no tomato scare, at least in Florida. What was this? The newspaper's lede:

"A Southwest Florida case of salmonella linked to tainted tomatoes, along with five dozen previously unknown cases in other states, raised the national toll to 228 illnesses, federal officials said Thursday."

But our tomatoes are safe, right? Of course. It was all a head fake. The next graph:

But Florida agriculture authorities say there's no reason to avoid eating homegrown fruits: The contaminated tomato in that case was eaten out-of-state.

"Our tomatoes are still safe to eat. We do not believe there is any link to salmonella anywhere in the state of Florida," said Mark Fagan, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Agriculture.

So the newspaper is telling us that the scare that isn't a scare isn't over yet and that it never began. Get it?

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