I'm ashamed for my profession
- Ivo Vegter
- 04 Apr 2011 (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
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