Posts Tagged ‘Media’

The british press and the issue of mobile phone safety

April 27, 2011
A typical mobile phone user

A typical mobile phone user

Do mobile phones cause brain cancer? This is the question at the heart of concerns around mobile phone safety. This concern continues:

  • despite the fact that there is not a single known case of harm arising from the use of mobile phones* and,
  • despite the fact that incidence of the relevant cancers has not changed significantly over the last two decades during which mobile phone use has risen exponentially and,
  • despite the fact that no one has provided a convincing model of how the phones could even in theory cause harm.

Now there are real issues around mobile phone safety, and we spend an evening discussing them in Protons for Breakfast. These issues should form topics that can addressed rationally by the press. It is possible, and as an example, please read this superb article in New York times (I think you may need to register to read the article, but it is worth it). It is written by Siddhartha Mukherjee, a cancer specialist, and introduces all the complexity of the subject in an intelligent and accessible way. It does not resort to platitudes, but simply reports the situation as it is. Reading it I felt reassured that intelligent journalism was actually possible.

Sadly, I  have yet to read a single rational article about this the British press. I won’t bore you with the all the articles in my database. The stories are uniformly facile – even in apparently august journals such as The Telegraph – and designed explicitly to engender fear, uncertainty, and doubt. These are factors which newspapers believe encourage media consumption.

They stories are simply ‘hacks’ of whatever press release some journalist is required to create a story around. However, the most egregious nonsense moves beyond the pathetic to the truly spectacular, and the prize must be awarded  to The Independent on Sunday for its article Mobile phone radiation wrecks your sleep. This was its front page headline on Sunday 20th January 2008. The story begins routinely enough reporting results of an unrefereed conference article which claims that mobile phone radiation affected the sleep of a cohort of people studied. Scratching around for supporting evidence Geoffrey Lean (again) happens upon the result of a study which he claims supports his thesis:

It also complements other recent research. A massive study, following 1,656 Belgian teenagers for a year, found most of them used their phones after going to bed. It concluded that those who did this once a week were more than three times – and those who used them more often more than five times – as likely to be “very tired”.

Did you catch that? Yes. This is a major UK newspaper reporting on its front page that teenagers who use their mobile phones in bed are likely to report that they are “very tired”. Can you believe that an apparently reputable UK newspaper can publish such risible nonsense? I urge you to laugh – it helps keep back the tears.

* This excludes harm arising from inattention caused by distraction while using the phone which has caused many road deaths and at least one train crash.

Nuclear News from the BBC

March 29, 2011
Warning symbols for radiation hazard
Warning symbols for radiation hazard.

Tonight the BBC is reporting as ‘news’ the fact that tiny amounts of Iodine 131 from the Japanese nuclear incident has been detected in England and Scotland. Why?

The ‘fact’ of the story is of no consequence to anyone or anything in the UK. But there have been no ‘developments’ for their reporters in Fukushima to parlay, and so the BBC has resorted to this to ‘keep the story going’. Now the BBC would – I imagine – say they simply reported ‘the fact’ and they included a sidebar on how insignificant the dose from the iodine would be. They might argue that if they had not reported the fact then they might have been accused of ‘covering up’ the measurements.

However, simply by reporting it they are implying that it is significant. Which it is not. There is a small amount of space on the front page of the BBC web site and editors make choices about what gets shown. There is plenty of real news which the BBC could have chosen to report: they could have reported on the 8 people who lost their lives today on our roads – real tragedies in our midst which are routinely ignored. But instead they chose this story with the aim – I guess – of frightening people.

The fact

The level of radioactive iodine-131 found in air samples in Oxfordshire poses no risk to human health. The measured level – 300 micro-becquerels per cubic metre – is much less than the natural background radiation dose to which a person in the UK is likely to be exposed in normal circumstances. At that level, a child’s exposure in one day would be less than one 10,000th of what they would receive from naturally-occurring background radiation in a day.

The Nature of Nuclear News

March 28, 2011
Warning symbols for radiation hazard

Warning symbols for radiation hazard. Please see the note at the end regarding the use of the 'scary' warning.

It’s been two weeks since the terrible earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and it seems like the death toll may exceed a staggering 20,000. Estimates of the reconstruction costs vary widely, but are certainly many trillions of yen, equivalent  to hundreds of billions of US dollars. The human and cultural cost is incalculable. And when I turn my mind to reflect on these events, I am numbed: I cannot conceive of it even though I know it was real.

But in the face of this disaster, the last two weeks has been filled with stories – apocalyptic in tone – about the damaged nuclear power stations at Fukushima. How can it be that in the face of this real disaster – the tsunami – that news organisations can focus on a nuclear incident in which no one has died and in which no one is likely to die? An event in which, sadly, two people have been hurt, but which in all probability will cause no physical harm to any member of the public anywhere – in Japan or elsewhere – ever! How does this come about?

Now I am not asking this question rhetorically. And I am not asking it in exasperation. I am asking it because the answer is important.

Firstly, the general problem with reporting of crises is that there is no mileage in being sensible. Overestimating the possible damage is in the interests of the news media because it keeps ‘the story’ going. But surely you ask, can’t someone just calmly explain the range of possible outcomes? Well, No. There is always uncertainty, and in any case it is impossible for anyone to stop a ‘nuclear story’. A politician could never say that the nuclear pollution from Fukushima is not very significant because they would be seen as uncaring. No one from the nuclear industry – i.e. anyone with any special knowledge of the field – could say there was ‘no need to worry’ – the reaction would be immediate panic! And the resultant anxiety – indeed the terror – of ordinary citizens is palpable. The same dynamic affected reporting of the BP pollution crisis in the Gulf of Mexico last year, but without the nuclear ‘spin’.

Secondly, and obviously, matters  nuclear have always had a special fascination. And because of their association with cancer; and with nuclear weapons; and because of their cultural novelty and unfamiliarity; matters nuclear engender fear. This is even more so for Japan, the only nation to suffer a nuclear attack. This is just a fact and there is no use complaining about it. All one can do – to use an English cricket term  – is to ‘play with a straight bat’. It means to just report what’s happening, and to skip the apocalyptic innuendo.

And that brings me to my third point. I think our news organisations have failed us, and I am especially critical of the BBC in this regard because I pay for it and I expect it to be the best in the world. Let’s take a look at the problem

  • Take a look at this BBC report on the measurements of radioactive iodine in a water treatment plant in Tokyo. The reporter calls this ‘ground zero’ – a term referring to the point of impact of a nuclear weapon – and after mentioning ‘the fact’, shows frightened parents searching for bottled water. He implies that matters are getting worse… But he fails to mention that ‘Radioactive Iodine’ refers to Iodine-131 – an isotope of iodine with a half-life of 8 days. The readings of 130 becquerel per litre, is indeed just above the recommended limit of 100 becquerel per litre for children. However, this is the limit for continued consumption for one year. However, because the half-life of iodine is 8 days, the level will fall below the safe level in a few days.
  • The Independent has never been strong on science, but Fear and devastation on the road to Japan’s nuclear disaster zone is just nothing but doom-mongering nonsense.
  • And this BBC story is mischievous. I have reproduced a section of the article below to show how although the article is entirely about the nuclear incident – it slips in a paragraph about the number of dead with the implication that the dead are somehow associated with this nuclear incident. They aren’t – no one has been hurt!

…The plant’s operator says the core of one of the six reactors may have been damaged. It has announced that fresh water rather than seawater will now be used to cool the damaged reactors, in the hope that this will be more effective. Prime Minister Naoto Kan said the situation was “very unpredictable”.

The official death toll from the 11 March earthquake and tsunami has passed 10,000, and more than 17,440 people are missing. Hundreds of thousands of people have been made homeless; an estimated 250,000 people are living in emergency shelters. Food, water and fuel are in short supply. The Japanese government has put the rebuilding cost at $309bn (£191.8bn).

Safety measures The levels of radiation found in the sea near the plant were more than eight times higher than those found in the same area last week, the Japanese officials said. A spokesman for Japan’s Nuclear Safety Agency said the radioactivity level in the sea off the nuclear plant was “relatively high” but the impact on marine life would be minor.

And you will find similar stuff from all the major news organisations. I tried to keep a list, but it’s impossible to keep track.

Is there really nothing to worry about? That is not what I said! There are real reasons to be concerned. But as I mentioned in my previous article, the situation gets easier as time moves on because the amount of heat being generated within each reactor is down from ≈ 1 MW last week to a few hundred kilowatts this week – still a lot of heat – but much more manageable and getting easier day by day. This is a serious incident and lessons will be learned. But despite the explosions at the plant, no one has been hurt, and the reactors are close to a cold shutdown state. There still exists the possibility of mistakes – but to me it looks like  the worst is over. I am ready to be corrected on this, but I want you to know that, even if I get ‘bowled out’ by a strange event, I have been playing with a ‘straight bat’.

And I can’t finish without noting that my heart goes out those suffering in Japan. I tend to donate to the Red Cross in these situations.

NOTE ON THE ‘SCARY’ RADIATION SYMBOL: This symbol is included in ISO 21482:2007. ISO International Standards are protected by copyright and may be purchased from ISO or its members (please visit for more information). The IAEA cites the use of this symbol as: “The symbol is intended for IAEA Category 1, 2 and 3 sources defined as dangerous sources capable of death or serious injury, including food irradiators, teletherapy machines for cancer treatment and industrial radiography units. The symbol is to be placed on the device housing the source, as a warning not to dismantle the device or to get any closer. It will not be visible under normal use, only if someone attempts to disassemble the device. The symbol will not be located on building access doors, transportation packages or containers.”

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