Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Seven Sharp and its "Bonjela hell" story

I don’t normally watch Seven Sharp. Somehow I don’t get the feeling I’m likely to miss anything important by not seeing it. But last night, for some reason, I found myself watching its opening item about a baby girl who reportedly almost died from an overdose of Bonjela.

That’s right, Bonjela – that popular gel people use for mouth ulcers and for soothing babies’ gums during teething.

Interviewed by Hilary Barry and Jeremy Wells, the parents cuddled their now-healthy baby as they explained how she was rushed to Starship Hospital after reacting adversely to the product. They said they were within minutes of losing her.

“Bonjela hell,” Wells called it, suggesting a promising future as a tabloid headline writer if he ever tires of television. Barry oozed empathy. “What a terrible ordeal,” she cooed.

The mother explained that they’d given the baby Bonjela and paracetamol because she was experiencing severe teething pain and the Bonjela seemed to soothe her. She said they had been in touch with health professionals who knew what they were doing.

How much Bonjela? “Quite a lot over a few days,” said the mother. “Over a 24-hour period, close to a tube.”

As it happens, we had a near-new tube of Bonjela in our bathroom. We’d used it only last week on our grandson’s gums. I went and got it.

The instructions on the tube say it should be applied no more than once every three hours and no more than six times over a 24-hour period. Then there’s a prominent warning in red letters: “Do not exceed the recommended dose. Excessive or prolonged use can be harmful.”

I would have thought that for a whole tube to be used over 24 hours was clearly far in excess of the recommended dose – in fact grossly excessive.

The instructions also say the gel shouldn’t be given to babies under four months. The baby in question was seven months old, but the warning can be taken as indicating that infants are at particular risk.

So you might think, in the circumstances, that the parents would have exercised a lot more caution. Yet I didn’t get the feeling they blamed themselves for what must have been a very scary experience.

However I’m not writing this to disparage them. You’d hope that they learned a lesson, even if they didn’t seem greatly troubled by self-doubt.

No, what appalled me was the absence of any journalistic rigour or integrity in the way Seven Sharp treated the item.

The hosts could have highlighted the warning on the tube (it was actually shown on screen at one point) and asked the parents whether they had bothered to read it – and if so, why they apparently chose to ignore it.

(At one point Wells even asked the parents: “Do you think Bonjela needs a warning?” FFS, there is a warning – it was right there on the programme, if he bothered to look.) 

They could have questioned the manufacturer of the product as to whether the warning was adequate,  or asked a health professional how the crisis could have been avoided (for example, by taking the novel step of following the instructions). They could have taken the elementary step of trying to find out whether other babies' lives  had been threatened by Bonjela (I think I know what the answer would have been).

But no. Instead, there was Barry simpering over the “adorable” baby (to be fair, she was very cute) and saying this was the sort of accident that happens when tired parents have to get up to distressed children in the middle of the night. I could almost hear thousands of parents chorusing: “No it’s not.” I mean, a whole bloody tube in 24 hours?

There was no balancing information, no expert opinion. Far easier to frame the item as (1) a tug on the heartstrings and (2) a scare story over a product that was portrayed as dangerous and irresponsible when it’s perfectly harmless, not to mention beneficial, when used as recommended - as most people obviously do.

I’ve since learned that Seven Sharp did interview a Ministry of Health doctor the previous week, when the case was first reported, and she was emphatic that Bonjela was safe provided parents followed the directions. But Seven Sharp shouldn’t assume that people would have seen that item, no matter how much they might like to think that New Zealanders religiously tune in to the show every night. It needed to be restated to provide some much-needed balance to last night’s overwrought item.

Whatever this was, it wasn’t journalism. I don’t think I’ll be tuning into Seven Sharp again in a hurry.


Hilary Taylor said...

We viewed both 'instalments' of the 'story'...which 'outs'us as 7Sharp viewers. (It's just on after the news and mostly cos we can't stomach The Project. I quite like Wells when he's droll.) Any reasonable viewer got the impression this was a case of overdose at the outset. The poor child was lucky she recovered, despite her parents' stupidity. Last night's 2nd chew of the fat was, as you say, disingenuously casual & sought for reasons other than public safety...cute bub etc. That's it.

David said...

I don't see Seven Sharp, as I watch the AlJazeera bulletin at that time, but I do see its previews as I usually turn TV One on about 6.50pm for the weather. I saw the Bonjela preview and chuckled that it would be a visual beat-up of a Radio NZ beat-up of the same baby I had heard some days earlier.

You've proved me right.

When I heard the RNZ item, I wondered why they were banging on about a product so safe it has been used world-wide for decades without issues. I assumed from the skinny RNZ piece that they must have fed the baby the whole tube to make it sick. Your article shows my presumption was fairly accurate.

Baseless media beat-ups are nothing new, I tried to fight them for most of my journalism career and I have long ago given up. But you'd think with a named and very common product sold on supermarket shelves that they would at least try to get the stock pap media release companies routinely give to reporters in lieu of the interview they nowadays always decline.

Doug Longmire said...

This story was a total beat up. The parents overdosed the child, against all warnings on the package, and are not accepting any responsibility.
What they did to their baby was the same as if they had given half a bottle of paracetamol instead of a 5 ml spoonful. They are at fault.

Seven Sharp's coverage was pathetic. TV One should have known better.