“Eyeball Licking Causing Pinkeye in Japan,” screamed the headline on a June 12, 2013 Huffington Post article. Eyeball licking! It was another unbelievable story made in Japan. Citing the Daily Caller, Huff Post reporter, David Moye, noted that “eye experts are worried that this dangerous fad is gaining popularity with preteens, especially after news reports of elementary school students in Japan who dared to test their ocular boundaries and caused multiple cases of pinkeye, otherwise known as conjunctivitis…”
Moyes tale made a perfect addition to the Western media’s “annals of weird Japan” with all the factors that go into making such a story, including the fact that it just might be entirely made up. In “Lick This!” a feature story appearing in the August 2013 edition of the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Japan’s magazine, Number 1 Shimbun, Tokyo-based writer, Mark Schreiber, lifts the lid on the eyeball licking story to discover there is more (or actually a lot less) to it than meets the eye. Schreiber writes that “it was not especially difficult to at least cast doubts on the sweeping claim that large numbers of Japanese adolescents were suffering from an epidemic of tongue-induced pink eye.” After contacting a couple of Japanese ophthalmological associations, a school clinicians’ organization and other medical professionals, the urban myth-busting author says “none of them had the faintest idea of what I was talking about.”
While eyeball licking may not really be a trend in Japan, turning a blind eye to the truth may be the trend at the Huff Post and other media outlets. It seems that delivering a tall tale that will catch the reader’s eye sure licks lifting the lid on a story to take a hard look at the facts.
Related article: "Lick This!" by Mark Schreiber
Related MediaBug report: Falling for a Fake Story...
I contacted the Huff Post using the "suggest a correction" button below the original story. The article's author, David Moye, got in touch with me nearly write away via email. Here is his response:
As a point of clarification: Are you questioning the original sources ShanghaiList and Matome.Naver.jp or the original reporting in our piece?
Like you, we had difficulties tracking down the Japanese sources.
Instead of printing the story verbatim as the Daily Caller did, we used the original story as sourced by ShanghaiList -- which they got from a Japanese language publication (links below) -- as a jumping off point to discuss the trend,which has existed since the mid-2000s.
Here are the links for those stories:
The Japanese version that is the original source is here: http://matome.naver.jp/odai/2137058819724992001
Although we linked to ShanghaiList and Daily Caller, we focused the bulk of the story on interviewing doctors stateside about potential dangers. We also spoke with two people stateside who have done the activity, including HuffPost Weird News staffer Andy Campbell.
We also included a gallery of YouTube videos showing actual eyeball licking, admittedly not from the Japanese students featured in ShanghaiList's story.
We at HuffPost Weird News tend to be skeptical of weird news stories from Japan for the reason cited in the Media Bugs article.
However, we gave this story more credence since eyeball licking has existed since the mid-2000s (there are lots of YouTube videos showing people doing it), and because we had two sources who discussed it on the record. Also, the eye experts we contacted were well aware of the existing trend as well as the ShanghaiList and Daily Caller stories.
I hope this helps."
The Huffington Post updated its story on August 7, adding:
"That story may be a hoax, according to Mark Schrieber, who writes for The Japan Times.
He said that he contacted three Japanese professional organizations, including two ophthalmological associations, a university professor and an organization of school clinicians to find out about the Japanese eyeball licking outbreak.
"None of them had the faintest idea of what I was talking about," Schrieber wrote inNo. 1 Shimbun, a trade publication for foreign correspondents in Japan. "None knew anything about the rampant spread of disease."