A lot of cancer is more newsworthy than a little cancer, or so seems to be lesson of an Associated Press article about possible consequences of the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in Japan.
With a long-term population study of the impact of just getting under way, the AP set out to do a bit of enterprise reporting, asking what it might find with regard to cancer rates. The answer: “cancers caused by the radiation may be too few to show up” in such studies because “the ordinary rate of cancer is so high, and our understanding of the effects of radiation exposure so limited.” As the AP reported, “that could mean thousands of cancers under the radar in a study of millions of people, or it could mean virtually none.” Yet overall, its article is clearly structured to induce at least a modicum of fear. After all, scary stories sell papers.
Journalists often play up the dramatic and alarming aspects of the information they’ve found, and play down or leave out the ameliorative, neutral, or balancing aspects that might help do justice to the truth, but which could “weaken” the story. The AP’s article illustrates what this looks like.
The relatively low radiation doses most people got (except for the workers who brought the melting reactors under control) probably won’t cause that many cancers at all. Possibly none. Consider the evidence reporters Malcolm Ritter and Mari Yamaguchi include in their story:
• Paragraph 4: “Several experts inside and outside Japan told The Associated Press that cancers caused by the radiation may be too few to show up in large population studies.”
• Paragraph 6: “‘The cancer risk may be absent, or just too small to detect,’ said Dr. Fred Mettler, a radiologist who led an international study of health effects from the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.”
• Paragraph 8: “2 million residents of Fukushima Prefecture, targeted in the new, 30-year survey, probably got too little radiation to have a noticeable effect on cancer rates, said Seiji Yasumura,” the head of the study.
• Paragraph 27: “Michiaki Kai, professor of environmental health at Oita University of Nursing and Health Sciences, said that based on tests he’s seen on people and their exposure levels, nobody in Fukushima except for some plant workers has been exposed to harmful levels of radiation.”
Unfortunately, “Nuke disaster might cause few cancers,” just doesn’t have the disquieting zing likely attract readers in droves. So, disingenuously, the lede suggests the possibility of a high rate: “Even if the worst nuclear accident in 25 years leads to many people developing cancer, we may never find out.” (The emphasis is mine.)
This construction emphasizes the possibility of “hidden” cancers, a frightening prospect, which is interesting, because the study of the psychology of risk perception—the emotional/instinctive way we judge how scary things are—has found that the greater the uncertainty about a perceived threat, the greater the fear. Most reporters probably haven’t studied risk perception, but they surely sense what will ring our alarm bells and get us to pay attention. So they accentuate menacing prospects and deemphasize reassuring ones.
To be fair, Ritter and Yamaguchi do report, repeatedly, that experts say the risk will be low. They even acknowledge that Fukushima might not cause any cancers at all, because scientists are not sure whether low doses of radiation are even carcinogenic in the first place. But it’s instructive to note that they don’t acknowledge the debate over the carcinogenicity of low doses of radiation until after several distressing paragraphs about contaminated water and forests and rice and fish and milk, radioactive soil that had to be removed near schools, mistrust in government, people carrying their own Geiger counters, kids being told to wear masks even though they are more than a hundred miles away from the contaminated area. The scary facts play higher.
It’s also interesting to note that, buried down in the twenty-fifth paragraph, the story cites Japanese officials as saying “mental health problems caused by excessive fear of radiation are prevalent and posing a bigger problem than actual risk of cancer caused by radiation.” Excessive fear of radiation?! I wonder where that might have come from?
That’s the point of this little critique. Risk reporting that overplays worrisome information and underplays the encouraging can actually hurt people. Fear fueled by coverage that goes beyond the evidence of the actual danger can lead to unhealthy choices by individuals and by society (fear of nukes has contributed to an energy policy that relies more on coal burning for electricity, the particulate emissions from which kills tens of thousands of people per year). Fear certainly adds to stress, which is bad for our health in all sorts of ways.
Moreover, dramatic coverage that distorts the facts damages the already shaky public trust in the news media. Alarming stories get people’s attention, which is how news organizations make their living. But journalism that goes too far and induces fear to attract attention is contributing to a big risk to the industry itself.
Potential conflict of interest disclaimer: I have consulted to several clients in the nuclear field about risk communication; the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Swedish Nuclear Authority, the National Radiological Emergency Preparedness Association, and the Nuclear Energy Institute.David Ropeik is an instructor in the Harvard University Extension School's Environmental Management Program, author of How Risky Is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts, creator of the in-house newsroom training program "Media Coverage of Risk," and a consultant in risk communication. He was an environment reporter in Boston for twenty-two years and a board member of the Society of Environmental Journalists for nine years.