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Complete Health Reporting: Facebook Forum Shows How Fearmongering Works

Complete Health Reporting: Facebook Forum Shows How Fearmongering Works

Picture of William Heisel
Parents on the West Coast were advised to get their children tested for radiation.

Fearmongering can create a climate of paranoia where one didn’t exist before.

But more often it feeds into existing ideas that people have about forces out of their control, genuine concerns people have for the safety of their families, and mistrust people have for authorities – often with good reason.

You can see all of these lines of thinking at play on the Facebook page for MSN Healthy Living.

The news service wrote an alarmist story about potential health effects in the United States from the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011. The story told people on the West Coast of the United States to get their children tested for radiation and thyroid disorders based on a problematic study from an anti-nuclear organization. The study said that radiation from Fukushima had reached the United States and was causing significant increases in thyroid disorders.

The Facebook teaser says:

News you can use: If you have a baby born on the West Coast in 2011, you should consider radiation risks.

This is fearmongering. No credible source has called for testing of children in the United States in response to the Fukushima disaster. Not the American Academy of Pediatrics. Not the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Not the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

But fearmongering works.

The vast majority of the people in the forum acted exactly as the lead in the story had suggested they should.

One person wrote:

This information would have been nice to know back in 2011. I live in Seattle and my son was born April 2011 but I NEVER heard any(thing) about there being any risks because of fallout.

Another wrote:

Perceptively it’s just as bad as them putting cancer causing GMO into all the kids/ppl food that make you fat, sick, and dumb. Or the mercury and aluminum and cancer agents in vaccines your doctor injects into you and your kids. Or blasting people with radiation at the air ports so you can be safe! or the fluoride in the water to make your teeth cavity free which has (been) admitted to be a failure but they continue to do it. Perceptively it’s not too much different from all the above and people continue to do or accept it onto themselves and their kids.

Then, finally, someone spoke up: Alan Remick from the National Nuclear Security Administration. He suggested a few good questions that reviewers should have asked of the lead author of the radiation study before it was published. The same questions should be asked by reporters reporting on that study and similar studies:

1. What is the average rate and standard deviation of congenital hypothyroidism over the last 25 or 50 years?

2. How does the rate in each state correlate with the amount of radiation received in each state?

3. How does the rate vary, state by state, across the U.S.?

In general, he completely avoids the concept of statistical significance. And for good reason: his analysis won’t stand up to it.

But those types of questions don’t fit in the fearmongering playbook. The MSN Healthy Living story ends with more fearmongering:

Scary? You bet. But information is power. If you have a baby born in March or April 2011 and you live on the Pacific Coast of the U.S. (or other Pacific countries), ask your pediatrician to test your child for congenital hypothyroidism – and anything else he or she believes could have been caused by radiation.

I prefer Remick’s bottom line:

Those families were not exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. Worrying is more worrisome and dangerous that the radiation from Japan.

Some reporters out there will read this and think, “I’m not a fearmonger! I’m just doing what I’m told. A scary study gets published, and my editor wants me to write about it.”

OK. I’ll offer a few suggestions for how to handle the story in my next post.

Photo by mikebaird via Flickr.

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