Acid or Base – Can journalists tell the difference?

Yesterday on Chapel Street in South Yarra, two children under the age of 3 had a strong cleaning solution poured on them from above by a group of children aged 9-10. The story received coverage across all news media in Melbourne.

In these days of almost instant news coverage, errors are common and details are often neglected in favour of breaking a story quickly. News spread that the children had been doused with ‘acid’. Turns out that the chemical was actually sodium hydroxide, and this sort of very basic error (pun intended!), is the kind of thing that really annoys me.

The ABC reported that the chemical was most likely sodium hydroxide, commonly found in household cleaners and can also be purchased in solution from hardware stores .  A witness statement that the children “were just covered in this soapy stuff” adds weight to the hypothesis that the substance was caustic, as sodium hydroxide and many other basic solutions feel soapy or slimy to the touch.

The Age quoted a detective saying that the substance was indeed sodium hydroxide, however the article was titled “Acid-prank suspect ‘too young to face charges’”.  NewsCorp’s Herald Sun initially led with “Toddler, baby burned with acid”, but have since changed most usages of the word ‘acid’ to ‘caustic’.

Education about the properties of acids and bases begins in primary school, and students will encounter acid-base chemistry right up to year 10, even if they do not pursue further studies in the sciences. I think that acids and bases is one of the most applicable topics in chemistry to everyday life – that virtually all of the journalists reporting on the story did not know the difference, or did not care to check, is another sad indictment on the state of the public’s scientific literacy.


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