I'm ashamed for my profession
- Ivo Vegter
- 04 Apr 2011 10:56 (South Africa)
“Radiation and you,” runs the headline.
“The radiation levels at Fukushima are now equivalent to having 4 000 chest X-rays in an hour. This crisis has prompted the questions: is nuclear energy really worth it, and on a more personal note, what exactly do I need to know about radiation?”
Health24, a division of Naspers’ Media24, is probably not to blame for this misleading introduction to what might have been a useful guide to radiation levels, mirroring this post and graphic by Randall Munroe of XKCD fame.
The story’s author admits to not being a nuclear expert, although even a non-expert might be expected to tell the difference between waste water contained inside the reactor and radiation exposure to the wider population. In essence, however, this story just repeats the nuclear hyperbole that even the most reputable of news organisations dish up daily.
“Alarm over plutonium”, reads the headline over a Reuters story carried by TimesLIVE. In paragraph four, you read about “low-risk levels”. Despite scary descriptions of plutonium as “highly carcinogenic and one of the most dangerous substances on the planet”, there’s not a hint that the soil in question was about 50 times less radioactive than, say, a typical human body, nor that they may well have stumbled upon harmless residues from Pacific weapons tests staged decades ago.
“Japan Nuke Plant Water ‘Leaking Into Sea’,” screams Sky News. It quotes a “Sky News correspondent” as saying “radiation in the sea near the plant was currently more than 4,000 times the legal limit”.
This might alarm readers, especially because it quotes such a reputable source, but there is no mention in the story that the normal limit is extraordinarily low, that the Pacific Ocean is extraordinarily big, and that the radioactive substance in question (iodine-131) decays extraordinarily rapidly.
A few weeks from now, all that will be left behind is some of the burny stuff your mother used to put on scrapes, albeit in concentrations so low that only a committed homeopath would benefit from bathing in Japanese coastal waters.
Warned the Guardian: “Japan fears food contamination as battle to cool nuclear plant continues: Abnormal radiation levels reported in tap water, vegetables and milk with concerns that fish may also be affected.”
Most of the contamination involves the aforementioned iodine-131, which was the main culprit for elevated thyroid cancer risk after Chernobyl. Its half-life is eight days. At the time of writing, a fortnight after the article, the IAEA reported that most drinking water restrictions have been lifted.
“Dangerous Levels of Radioactive Isotope Found 25 Miles From Nuclear Plant,” yells the New York Times headline. Sure, it’s higher than normal, but it would have to remain that way for a few decades, while you lived there, before there’d be a small chance that you’d notice.
“Japan may have lost race to save nuclear reactor,” trumpets a Guardian headline, evoking fears of a meltdown and containment breach, before promptly contradicting itself: “no danger of Chernobyl-style catastrophe”.
But who to believe, when Agency France-Presse, as carried by News24, reports “Fukushima much bigger than Chernobyl – expert”?
Here are a few hints. The “expert” in question, Natalia Mironova, is an anti-nuclear campaigner, speculating about an entirely fictional worst-case scenario in Fukushima.
As the story unfolds you learn that the UN has long dismissed claims that tens or even hundreds of thousands of people died as a result of Chernobyl, and even the reliable alarmists at Greenpeace limit themselves to a number of 60,000. However, “Mironova said Chernobyl would likely impact the health of 600 million people around the world over the long-term, or nearly nine times more than were killed in World Wars I and II.”
Face it, “600 million” doesn’t even need exclamation marks. It’s scary just sitting there staring at you, especially when Fukushima is “much bigger”.
Many of these stories follow a typical pattern.
First, scream something scary about the radiation risk. Exploit the fact that “normal” or “legal” limits are extremely low. For example, the legal radiation exposure limit for US nuclear workers is eight times lower than the level known to cause detectable statistical cancer risk. However, it is 50 times higher than the limit for ordinary members of the public. Given such remarkably low limits, it is easy to create headlines that involve scary big numbers. When the norm is virtually zero, it’s pretty easy to get to a thousand times worse.
Then, safely assuming that most of your readership is not well versed in nuclear physics, throw in some stuff naming scary-sounding radioactive isotopes, and add a few ominous measurements in millisieverts and megabecquerels.
Once you’ve scared the vast majority senseless, bury a few caveats down the middle somewhere to protect your backside if anyone accuses you of lying. Those paragraphs might hint that despite the unimaginable terror of the aforegoing, experts say it’s not likely to be very serious, and official measures are mostly precautionary in nature.
Finally, as a footnote in the closing paragraphs, add the unimportant stuff that the sub-editor could cut if he ran out of space. To quote the end of Sky’s water leak story:
“More than 165,000 Japanese people are still living in temporary shelters. A further 260,000 households still do not have running water and 170,000 do not have electricity. More than 15,500 people are still missing after the disaster, which officials fear may have killed some 25,000 people.”
This is the closing paragraph of the Guardian’s food-contamination story:
“The death toll from the earthquake and tsunami continued to rise on Tuesday, as more bodies were retrieved from the vast stretch of coastline hit by the tsunami. Police said 8,928 people had been confirmed dead and a further 12,664 were missing. Various estimates have put the current death toll at nearer 18,000.”
Who cares about a few thousand dead people, when there’s RADIOACTIVE MILK!
Here’s “the paper of record”, caught red-handed changing a story that at first was designed to cause fear and alarm: New York Times Quietly Edits Article About Fukushima Evacuation.
It makes me very ashamed for my profession that hysteria, some of it bordering on barking mad, gets headlines in the mainstream media, while it falls to niche-market blogs and websites for geeky types, such as XKCD and The Register, to pour cold water over the exaggeration.
This three-page article by Lewis Page in The Register is particularly worth reading. It debunks many instances of blatant exaggeration. It links to a post cited in my first column on this subject, which lists the many reasons why nuclear fears about Fukushima are exaggerated.
In his piece, Page makes a very important point. This kind of fear-driven reporting has consequences, and they go well beyond direct harm such as putting perfectly good companies out of business.
The media is largely staffed by intellectuals who call themselves “progressive”. In truth, most people who proudly wear that label aren’t progressive at all. They’re arch-conservatives who fear technological progress. They have a great deal in common with the Luddites, who opposed industrialisation and factory production because they felt inventions such as the mechanised weaving loom would spell the end of a comfortable old order in which most everyone could rely on small-scale manual labour for a living.
The modern media’s position is much the same. It extolls the virtues of subsistence farming, home-made arts and crafts, and mom-and-pop stores. Being rich enough to afford such inefficient luxury themselves, they seek to impose this “small is beautiful” ethos on the rest of the world, much of which has yet to achieve such levels of comfortable prosperity.
As if the sensationalist tabloid media isn’t enough of a blot on the noble profession of journalism, the respected mainstream has gone well beyond mere sensationalism in its reporting on Fukushima. It trumpets its pathological fear of industry and “big business” in every headline, and displays its anti-progressive terror of modernity in every article.
If ordinary environmental reporting, which goes under banner headlines such as “Addicted to Oil”, “Frankenfoods” and “World in Peril!”, isn’t enough, surely the demonstrably hysterical headlines about Fukushima are convincing evidence of a radical green bias in the mainstream news media?
This bias is an abdication of responsibility. Worse, it is dangerous. Besides the immediate financial harm that results from such irresponsible, untruthful reporting, it gives anti-progressive ecomentalists slogans for protests in the streets, and is likely to prompt a “nuclear ice age” at government policy level.
Such a freeze on modern technology, sparked entirely by unfounded fear-mongering, will restrain or even prevent progress. In the case of nuclear power, it will severely limit the world’s options in the face of the rising cost of traditional fuels like oil, and inefficient or dirty alternatives such as coal, wind or solar power.
The media’s irrational fear and inbred conservatism will not only “steal our Jetsons future”, as Page put it. It will also curtail our civilisation’s ability to make further progress against poverty, malnutrition and disease. Rising prosperity is what lifted much of the world out of the awful living conditions of the pre-modern era. Throughout that time, the agents of progress had to fight the fear and ignorance of peasants, priests and populist agitators like the Luddites.
How ironic that the biggest beneficiaries of progress – the wealthy elites and their media – now impose on the rest of the world the same conservative fears they had to conquer to achieve their prosperity.
One ought to be proud to be a journalist, but the coverage of Fukushima is a disgrace to the profession. DM
- How to kill a baby, naturally!
- Miserere mei, the Ebocalypse is here!
- Advanced technology or magic?
- Tourism: Still doing okay? Let’s fix that!
- Green-left messiah desperately seeking spin-doctor
- The gun genie and its bottle
- On energy, environment, and regulatory independence
- South Africa’s schools of witchcraft and wizardry
- Grab shale gas opportunity, but avoid opportunism
- It’s about who you don’t vote for
- Free markets as a moderate position
- Voting: there’s still time to change your mind
- Green tech is cool, but not because it’s green
- How Mmusi Maimane swindled a vote out of me
- The case to elect Malema to Parliament
- The intellectual gnome, Chomsky
- If Malema isn’t Pol Pot, is he still dangerous?
- Do Malema's followers understand ‘agrarian reform’?
- Look ma, I'm defending Shell's record in Nigeria!
- Any weather is evidence for global warming
- U-turn prof finds his fracking fears are avoidable
- Ramphele et al: The world according to angry feminists
- On HIV/Aids and scary-big numbers
- Cherry-picking ‘grey literature’ on rhino horn
- 350,000 reasons to kill a black rhino
- Eight myths about libertarians
- New Year’s resolutions for other people
- All I want for Christmas is a fire pool
- In defence of Donald Trump
- My old South African flag
- Fearful Fukushima fiction fatigue
- Do we tolerate private sector corruption?
- In defence of a lion killer
- Save the rare wine and endangered craft beer
- Forever blowing bubbles: shale gas economics
- Promotion and Protection of Investment Bill: When “certainty” means “wait and see”
- This land is my land: a revolution
- The launch of SA's Libertarian Party: herding cats in time for 2014
- The African case against the ICC
- The fossil fuel subsidy myth
- Think of the little fishies!
- The hilariously misunderstood libertarian
- The sickly history of sweeteners
- Pants on fire, but they’re not mine
- The obstructionism of shale gas activists
- How mind-numbing numbers whip up fear
- Why pick on Khanyi Dhlomo?
- Half-measures will fail the rhino
- Malema’s righteous anger... and naïve confusion
- Lottery licence to go to one lucky winner
- Vaccinations: when the state stabs the people
- Do reusable shopping bags kill people?
- The long walk to serfdom
- The Karoo desperately needs development
- The trials of Samson Shuttleworth
- The girl who kicked the hornet’s nest
- Raping the discourse about rape
- Who is the reasonable man?
- Fracking: Debating a big deal
- Who needs the Queen’s English?
- Electric cars: Taking from the poor to give to the rich
- Business Licensing Bill: An indefensible defence
- Red-tape tourism
- The Big Business Bribery Bill
- On Thatcher and society, Vavi and the market
- Extinction: Let’s make up numbers and panic!
- Feeding the world is getting easier
- Stop talking shit: Build your own toilet
- Climate change is pseudo-science
- Anti-competitive competition law
- The Department of Less Government
- An open letter to President Zuma
- In defence of Kim Kardashian
- The world’s weirdest wildlife sanctuary
- Boycott calls are simple-minded
- In defence of vegans
- The population explosion implodes
- Environmental backpedalling picks up pace
- How Mangaung can help and hinder entrepreneurs
- The elusive libertarian enclave
- The Gathering: Ivo Vegter
- The hidden overemployment crisis
- The case for constructive environmentalism
- Privatise the Western Cape's shacks
- Tenders: Not open to employees or their families
- Hurricanes fuel climate sensationalism
- Next: Gross-out warnings on food
- No new deal: The failure of Zumanomics
- Benoni has a bright idea
- Was I wrong about acid rain?
- Public food gardens: Where dumb ideas thrive
- Rethinking the costly food label madness
- Give hunting a chance
- Fracking gets green light, but here's the risk
- Socialists, bless 'em, visit Cape Town
- Buy a 1Time ticket now
- Give the ANC credit where credit is due
- The myth of the competent apartheid government
- It's a disaster that 'peak oil' is not a disaster
- No Gravy: a label for sustainable business
- This lightbulb's going to blow
- Smokers? Get 'em up against the wall!
- Inflating the obesity scare
- Bring a Shotgun to School Day
- GMOs: Hacking genes to feed the world
- The hidden dangers of charity
- Fracking: the unread paper debated
- Fracking: The “U-turn” paper nobody has read
- Eco-cronyism is as dangerous as any other
- SKA: Be grateful Karoo residents didn't object
- Energy: Get cracking on fracking
- Fair trade, unfair trade-off
- Casual labour is only bad for Vavi's unions
- 'Externalities', the catch-all justification for regulation
- 'Externalities', the catch-all justification for regulation
- How do we fix our dismal education?
- Barter: the rebirth of sound money
- Rights are not entitlements
- Debunking 'limits to growth' inanities
- Tax: Why align with "most other countries"?
- Newspaper sensationalism doesn't help rhinos
- Rolling Stone reprises Gasland's fracking fantasies
- Cosatu's manipulative march move
- Why do 16 million people not constitute an economy?
- The age of smear politics
- Does fracking cause earthquakes?
- The Chinese model is morbidly obese
- Green tech: doubling down on a losing bet
- Rape, pornography, and hell's grannies
- Petrol taxes won't hurt the poor
- Jailtime mooted for bad weather warnings
- Let's ban bans, and start with CITES
- In defence of overpaid sport stars
- On the death of Kim Jong-Il
- COP17: Let's ban fire
- Cancer gets you when nothing else can
- COP17: The 'party on' agenda
- COP17: The Blue Line of Death
- New seven natural inanities
- Occupiers' anger is all that makes sense
- The Luddites and Technocrats live on
- Malema marches for economic slavery
- Profitable purveyors of pudendal prettiness
- Sense? Us?
- If they want rhino horn, let's sell them some
- "Stimulate" economy by ending telco abuses
- Executive pay makes nobody poorer
- Malema's real persecution
- Mogoeng: Lock up your daughters
- Don't mandate insurance, deregulate healthcare
- I sympathise with Malema's persecution complex
- Short selling: panicked pols ban proof of failure
- Don't blame those who saw it coming
- What's obscene about profit?
- In defence of Bombela
- Dear president Zuma, you are not above the law
- The economics of love
- Treasure the Karoo? Ban the SKA!
- Malema is right, you know
- Gautrain's PPP: political patronage profiteering
- Kumi Naidoo is no hero
- LeadSA fails to lead when it matters
- No logo means carte blanche
- The drug war: dopey but dangerous
- A response to fracking critics
- Don't vote. It's your right.
- Welcome Walmart
- If you're happy and you know it clap your hands
- Buy local, support poverty
- Ubuntu, the free-market way
- Karoo fracking scandal exposed!
- I'm ashamed for my profession
- The bill of bunkum
- Being gay: a brand new concept!
- Who's afraid of the nuclear wolf?
- The nationalisation canard
- Ogilvy should grow a spine
- The new robber barons
- A classy revolution: Why we cared
- Bombastic Bombela balks
- Liberty is more than mere democracy
- Gautrain has a law unto itself
- The irony of 'services for all'
- How to hire a hitman in SA
- Arrive alive and neurotic
- The oppression of taxis
- Protection of Information Bill and why WikiLeaks is so dangerous
- Fifa, Russia and Qatar deserve each other
- One day, we'll all hate WikiLeaks
- The cycling mafia strikes again
- What Julius got for Christmas
- Let's return the beads
- Away with fascist seat belt laws
- Tintin Mbeki in the Sudan
- How the ANC can make everyone happy
- Currency: the race to the bottom.
- Hurrah for national healthcare!
- Give Zimbabweans citizenship
- Carte Blanche has no carte blanche
- That finger-licking, lip-smacking taste
- Bomb the barbaric lot already
- Green tax: another raid is coming
- Do strikers deserve anything?
- The media will lose this battle
- Global warmism needs a fisking
- A glass half-full
- Go ahead, have a baby
- Stop the handouts - end xenophobia
- The right to fire
- FIFA's heart of darkness
- Have some self-respect
- I ordered an orange skirt
- Secretly, Match blames South Africa
- The stupendous Gautrain: a rare marvel!
- The Fifa conquistadors are coming!
- What's wrong with everyone?
- Leave poor BP alone
- The destructive power of government
- The bonsai economy
- The darkness of Africa
- Who is ripping off whom?
- Anatomy of a whitewash
- While FIFA takes over, we fight
- The pointless pretence of Earth Hour
- Ten reasons to reject climate alarmism
- Really, boycott the FIFA farce
- The climate dominoes fall
- Lessons in ethics from Dick Cheney
- Screw the consumer
- In defence of bankers
- Break the banking cartel
- Julius Malema, the walking contradiction
- Boycott FIFA
- Climate clarity
- In defence of Boney M
- Pray Copenhagen fails
- Capitalism is not unkind
- Climate fraud kills people
- Pop goes the hot air balloon
- Peace, love and schadenfreude
- The irony of the left
- Too late to cool it?
- Going cold turkey