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Complete Health Reporting: Resist the Siren Song of the Fearmonger

Complete Health Reporting: Resist the Siren Song of the Fearmonger

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Studies claiming nuclear fallout is sickening U.S. babies stretch credulity.

My wife rarely sends me emails with things I “should read.” I read enough at work and in writing for Center for Health Journalism Digital. I don’t need more reading assignments.

But this “should read” came from the woman who watches our kids, a friend, a mother and a trusted voice in child rearing. She wondered whether I had any thoughts about a news report by MSN Healthy Living with this headline:

Fukushima fallout sickens U.S. babies?

This is the classic question-mark headline that Jon Stewart has mocked and Gary Schwitzer at practically begs reporters to avoid. It allows publications to make claims that aren’t supported by evidence with the excuse that they have framed the claim as a question. But often – and this is the case with the coverage of this study – the question mark simply denotes the discomfort of the copy editor who wrote the headline, while the content of the story itself is presented as pure fact.

In this case, the story eases readers into the fear cauldron. Its subhead says:

Children born in Pacific coastal states in 2011 may be at greatest risk.

That’s a lot of kids. There were more than 670,000 children born in the states in question in 2011. The story goes on to say:

A new study suggests what many worldwide have feared – that the devastation from the traveling radiation has in fact sickened infants in other countries, including babies born shortly after the incident in Hawaii, Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and California.

“Many worldwide”? By what measure is that true? It’s much more likely that most people in the world stopped thinking about the Fukushima disaster a week after it happened. But stories like this are counting on people being fearful, so they present the world as a frightening place where the dangers that are lurking around every corner are fully recognized by “many” already. Now these dangers are being confirmed by science, and they are guaranteed to steal your good life away from you if you don’t wake up.

The problem with this chain of reasoning is that the science here should have a question mark attached, too. Nowhere in the story does it mention that the lead author behind the study – Joseph Mangano – is on the record as a fierce critic of nuclear power. Nor does it mention that the group put out two similar studies in 2011 that were criticized for flaws in their analysis.

My former editor, Barbara Feder Ostrov, wrote about all the problems with the previous studies in December 2011 and the fact that so many news outlets took the bait. Michael Moyer at Scientific American tried to bring some sanity to the discussion and wrote about one of the studies in December 2011:

No attempt is made at providing systematic error estimates, or error estimates of any kind. No attempt is made to catalog any biases that may have crept into the analysis, though a cursory look finds biases a-plenty (the authors are anti-nuclear activists unaffiliated with any research institution). The analysis assumes that the plume arrived on U.S. shores, spread everywhere, instantly, and started killing people immediately. It assumes that the “excess” deaths after March 20 are a real signal, not just a statistical aberration, and that every one of them is due to Fukushima radiation.

The publication of such sloppy, agenda-driven work is a shame. Certainly radiation from Fukushima is dangerous, and could very well lead to negative health effects – even across the Pacific. The world needs to have a serious discussion about what role nuclear power should play in a power-hungry post-Fukushima world. But serious, informed, fact-based debate is a difficult enough goal to achieve without having to shout above noise like this.

The problems with this new study are in the same vein. It takes two very short periods – March to December 2010 and March to December 2011 – and tries to draw huge conclusions. It also jumps all over the map. You are supposed to believe that a rise in thyroid disorders in Jacksonville, Boston and Boise are all connected to the Fukushima disaster. This simply stretches credulity. That said, I’d be happily persuaded by a better body of evidence.

It seems fewer reporters were fooled this time out. But most of the coverage that did appear, including stories by ABC News in San Diego, Grist, and, of course, MSN, fail to make any attempt at analyzing the quality of the radiation study’s analysis.

Instead, they take another flawed study and use it to scare their readerships.

Right after the lead, the MSN story says:

Does this make you feel sick to your stomach? Join the discussion on Facebook.

I tried to pretend for a minute that I didn’t have a health reporting background and that I didn’t spend most days reading and thinking a lot about the health sciences. I thought about how that question and the question posed in the headline would strike me.

As a parent, I was a little scared. And that’s how MSN wanted me to feel. I’ll write more about why scaring readers into submission isn’t a good strategy in my next post.

Image by iluvcocacola via Flickr

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“Racism in medicine is a national emergency.” That’s how journalist Nicholas St. Fleur characterized the crisis facing American health care this spring, as his team at STAT embarked on “Color Code,” an eight-episode series exploring medical mistrust in communities of color across the country. In this webinar, we’ll take inspiration from their work to discuss strategies and examples for telling stories about inequities, disparities and racism in health care systems. Sign-up here!

The USC Center for Health Journalism at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism is seeking two Engagement Editors to serve as thought leaders in one of the most innovative and rewarding arenas in journalism today – “engaged reporting” that puts the community at the center of the reporting process. Learn more about the positions and apply to join our team.


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