Reporters and editors didn’t ask if such a contest was possible. How would you run the game? Recruit players, collect money, verify winners, and issue payouts? Surely, such an undertaking would leave evidence. Or, at least, an actual teenager or two to interview.
It’s no surprise the story quickly fell apart. In a statement released on Twitter, the Alabama Department of Public Health said it “could not verify any parties where persons tried to contract” COVID-19. So there is no confirmed evidence of anything. Not the contest. Not even that teenagers attended parties knowing they were sick. The AP released a second report walking back the first.
The COVID contest story is the latest example of adults jumping to conclusions about teenagers and panicking. Since the mid-2000s, rumors have swirled about “pill parties,” in which teens supposedly swap prescription drugs swiped from their parents, and “rainbow parties,” where boys receive multiple sex acts from assembled girls. Even when there is evidence for the existence of a troubling trend, credulous news outlets can exaggerate the problem—as when, two years ago, a handful of teens really did eat Tide pods, leading to overblown fears of a supposed nationwide poisoning fad.