To most journalists, a good story is defined in large measure by how much attention it will get. A story that makes page one, or leads the newscast, is better than one buried inside the newspaper or that runs after the third commercial. A story that people talk about for days, or ‘goes viral’, is even better.
All of which helps explain why the dramatic and alarming aspects of stories about risk often get played up, and the ameliorating or neutral or balancing aspects that might help do justice to the truth but which could ‘weaken’ the story, get played down, or left out altogether. A recent story by the Associated Press regarding radiation from the Fukushima nuclear disaster illustrates what this looks like, and offers an instructive lesson about how the news media contribute to fears that don’t match the facts, excessive worry that contributes to unhealthy choices for us as individuals, and as a society.
The story ran under various headlines. Most said something like this one from Boston. com; “Future cancers from Fukushima plant may be hidden” on Boston.com Essentially, the story is that a broad public health study of the population affected by Fukushima probably won’t detect any cancers, because there will be too few to show up compared with the much higher general cancer rate. In other words, the number of cancer cases from Fukushima will probably be pretty low.
Of course, “Nuke disaster might cause few cancers” doesn’t sound all that bad, and might not attract as many readers as something more alarming. But the AP reporters, working on a story about the health study of Fukushima’s effects, stumbled into an answer that doesn’t make for page one play; 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;
But low cancer risk is not scary, not as good a story. So, despite the fact that the experts said that few people, if any, will get cancer, the lede dishonestly instead suggests the possibility of a high rate, “Even if the worst nuclear accident in 25 years leads to many people (my emphasis) developing cancer, we may never find out.” The lede fails to report the basic overall truth the reporters themselves learned about the low radiation risk, and instead emphasizes the far more alarming fact that the cases will be ‘hidden’. 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 the greater the fear. Reporters haven’t studied the psychology of risk perception, but they surely sense what makes things more scary just like we all do. So the scarier uncertainty aspect, the part more likely to ring our alarm bells and get us to pay attention, gets played up, and the less scary/more reassuring part…that even if we can’t detect them the number of cases will be low…gets played down.
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 alarming 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 graph 25, 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?! Hmmmm. I wonder where that might have come from?
That’s the point of this little critique. Risk reporting that overplays the scary and underplays the neutral or ameliorating can actually hurt people. Fear fueled by alarmist 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.
Setting aside the health harms, alarmist coverage that distorts the facts also damages the public’s already shaky trust in the news media. I understand the realities of motivations of a daily journalist. I was one for 22 years and, mea culpa, I did this a lot during my reporting days. Alarming stories get people’s attention, which is after all what reporters want and how news organizations make their living. But journalism that goes too far and inaccurately overplays fear to attract attention is contributing to a big risk to the news industry itself, the risk of losing readers and listeners and viewers by abusing the trust they put in us to do a fair job with the truth.