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By Keith R. Taylor
 

SDARI has long wanted to give special recognition for folks who
present wowser stories without disclaimers. Fortunately we've had few
candidates because the reporting has been pretty good. What few stories we
unearthed generally were redeemed by a tongue-in-cheek attitude, or a few
well placed disclaimers.

That string was broken on May 17. Channel 10 ran a story on
therapeutic touch with no disclaimers. In fact they reinforced the
credulous ideas with some whiz-bang camera work.

Member Jeff Wells caught it first, and he alerted the rest of us. A
local newscaster named Leonard Villarreal gave a completely uncritical
report of a local nurse who performed "miraculous" treatment to alleviate
pain in children.

We bought an unedited, uncut tape to ensure fairness. The news
teaser was given by a sincere-looking fellow named Bill Gaines: "Leonard
shares with us the healing powers of a nurse at Children's Hospital." He
didn't even bother with "alleged" healing powers.

Mr. Villarreal opened his segment with: "These are the hands of
Patti Ryan. She has what's called the healing touch, the ability to use
her hands-her energy-to eliminate pain."  Lo and behold it was true, or
awfully impressive at any rate. A stern-faced nurse was shown moving her
hands over a young lady of 12 or 13. A shot of the heavens with stars,
whirling galaxies, and a moon or two appeared behind Nurse Ryan. Villarreal
kept a straight face.

Even, more lo and behold, the therapeutic toucher's hands glowed an
eerie blue. Surely this was a miracle-or fancy camera work at least. The
announcer did admit the demonstration was merely simulated, but he didn't
comment on her magic, glowing hands.

Other quotes by Villarreal included: ". . .that's when Patti put
her healing touch to work. . . First she passes over what she calls a
person's energy field to determine where the pain is. . . Patti uses her
energy to calm the pain, unruffle it." Not a disclaimer to be found.

One of the co-anchors wrapped up the whole shebang with, "And over
the years Patti has helped dozens of patients where drugs like morphine
have no effect."

On behalf of SDARI I wrote a letter to the reporter with a copy to
the station manager and news director. It is truncated to save space.
 

SDARI is an association interested in claims of paranormal
activities and of miracles. We intend to reward purveyors of such claims
with special recognition.

Your news broadcast of May 17 was certainly worthy of special
recognition for credulity. In several minutes of touting the "therapeutic
touch" nurse you offered not one disclaimer, or posed one single critical
question.

Then, for those who still might have missed the significance of
the whole thing, you superimposed a background of the heavens complete with
spiraling galaxies while Ms Ryan was showing how she "harnessed the powers
of the universe."

We are of course pleased that young Briten Douglas is relieved of
her pain and wish her a complete recovery, but we aren't as sure as you
that we saw a miracle.

It seems obvious Channel 10 doesn't have any sort of science
advisor. Perhaps we could get you the address of Emile Rosa? That
9-year-old was one of the few people who could persuade the therapeutic
touchers to submit to a neutral, scientific test. It was held for a fourth
grade science fair.

In a simple, but valid experiment the touchers were correct 44% of
the time, a little less than random chance would have had it. The odds were
50/50.

. . . (touchers) rely on emotion and on credulous, uncritical reporting. You filled their needs well. Therefore, we award you the first ever "Credulous Reporting Award." If you would like, I would be glad to present it to you on the air, assuming I could have a few seconds to explain what it is. Or you may pick it up at the next meeting of SDARI, June 28nd. In fact, if you'd like to discuss the program at length, let me know. We'll be happy to put you on the program.

Details at four.
 

We didn't get a reply. I called the station. Still no reply. I
called again. This time I left word that I was a writer working on a story
about it and wanted the station's input. Within minutes Don Wells, the
news director, returned my call.

Yes, he had received my letter but, ". . . I thought it (the
Villarreal piece) was a good story and it did accomplish exactly what I
wanted to accomplish with it so I noted your letter and put it in the
file."  It may have been just my imagination, but I could swear "put it in
the file" was emphasized a tad.

I pointed out his negligence in putting in a disclaimer: ". . .it
should have a disclaimer because people watching would assume this is a
very valid form of treatment."

Mr. Wells answered, "I think we took the proper tone in presenting
it. We didn't say anybody ought to rush out and do this."

That comment was surely worthy of the disclaimers Reader's Digest
gives before tricking old people into buying their magazines. I hope such
disingenuous statements don't become some sort of the standard for news
reporting.

I persisted, "But you presented it as if the healing actually took
place, and Leonard Villarreal was quoted as saying she harnessed the powers
of the universe." A review of the tape showed he did not say that. He
quoted the nurse who did. Still Leonard didn't express any doubts about her
claim.

Mr. Wells insisted he had satisfied the elements of honest
reporting. I asked, "Don't you think it would be fair to present somebody
who says 'Hey, there is no evidence this really occurred. It is well within
the bounds of the placebo effect'. . . wouldn't you think that would be in
the interest of objective reporting?"

"I think that's within the context of what we did. You disagree.
But that's what I think. I think that within either one of those cases (I
had compared the "touch story" with UFO reporting) we do it within the
context that sets that up as the perspective we're coming to."

Damn! I forgot to ask the most important question. "Would Leonard
Villarreal come pick up his award?"

It's been a couple months now, and he hasn't answered yet.

--------- Keith R. Taylor is the President of SDARI ¨¨¨