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Repeating a 2004 item about toxic headlines

This blog wasnt always a blog.

It began in May of 2002 as a column in the now-defunct Express. Because it appeared monthly, I put a lot of work into each column, often cramming in more content that my editor, Steve Bartlett, had space to accommodate.

Today, I am repeating one of the best of those columns, from January of 2004. It cast a skeptical eye at the news medias alarmist approach to health scare stories, and the screaming headlines that often werent justified. I put a lot of work into this one, and I think it shows. In fact, Media Magazine, the official publication of the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ), ran the piece as a guest commentary in the spring of 2005. This was something of a coup, given that I was no longer a working journalist and had, in fact, crossed over to public relations. Because it is the most up-to-date, I am reproducing the CAJ version below.

I think the facts in this piece hold up well, five years later, and I stand by everything in the article. It was media coverage of the swine flu issue that reminded me of this, and I am adding a brief update at the end to tie in that story.

Toxic headlines are making me ill

By Geoff Meeker

Journalists will usually react with skepticism to any controversial release, digging deeper, asking tough questions and refusing to conform to the newsmakers agenda. There is, however, at least one exception. When it comes to scientific studies that affect our health, media will sometimes amplify and exaggerate the seriousness of the threat.

This is no idle accusation. Its a conclusion Ive drawn from years of media observation. I write a media analysis column for The Express newspaper in Newfoundland and, last year, did some research to substantiate my theory.

My conclusion is that, when it comes to health stories, even the most respected news outlets will not read the fine print or delve into the science, rushing to conclusions that are sensational, not necessarily factual.

MAD COW UNEASE

The crisis over mad cow disease has been devastating Canadian cattle farmers since the first outbreak in May of 2003. It continues to generate above-the-fold headlines, following the recent court decision in Montana which blocks the reopening of the U.S. border to Canadian beef.

Yes, the story is significant. But it neednt have dealt such a terrible blow to our cattle farming industry. How many news items have clearly explained the real health threat of mad cow disease? How many have compared our situation with that of the United Kingdom?

Reporters in Canada were quick to report on the crisis as its ramifications rippled into external markets, but they failed to offer balancing information that might have tempered the situation. Two years later, I still havent seen an effective reality check from media. If anything, theyve been fanning the flames of confusion and fear around this story.

Reporters might have explained that, in the United Kingdom, cattle were fed animal carcasses infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or mad cow disease for years. Estimates are that anywhere from 50,000 to one million infected cows were consumed in the UK. So far, more than 100 people have died from the disease (though more cases are bound to surface). Given the size of the UK population and the apparently widespread consumption of the BSE virus, this is a relatively small number. (U.K. residents might better focus their concerns on second hand cigarette smoke, which kills more than 11,000 people per year in that country, according to a British Medical Journal study.)

In Canada, we have learned from the UK experience. We have much greater awareness, more stringent health and safety controls on beef, and four known cases of BSE in cows. As far as we know, no infected meat has been consumed in Canada or the U.S. No one has contracted the human variant of this disease, and the real danger to consumers is practically nil.

I am aware that this story is not exclusively about health concerns. The protectionist agenda of the American cattle farmers is also a factor. Which reinforces the need for greater clarity around the actual health threat posed by BSE.

I am not suggesting that reporters should build in such balancing information in their early news coverage. When I worked as a reporter, if someone had suggested I include softening information in breaking stories I would have told them to take a hike. However, this type of information does have a place as a story unfolds, when the public is looking for background information to better understand the issue.

SOMETHING FISHY

The headlines were pretty scary: Eating salmon may pose health risks Farmed salmon laced with toxins Scare over farmed salmon safety.

These headlines were collected on the Internet from news sources around the world, reacting to a 2004 study in the journal Science about toxin levels in farmed salmon.

The report was reasonably credible in its research, at least on first glance. However, the story it generated contained a major flaw in logic.

Articles in both The Globe and Mail and on the BBC News web site took a similar approach to this story. In the top paragraphs, they summarized the findings as alarmingly as possible.

Farm-raised Atlantic salmon are so laced with PCBs and other pollutants that they should be eaten only infrequently, said the Globe in its lead sentence.

Then they brought in opposing viewpoints from health officials and the salmon farming industry, but they came across as defensive and self-serving. (Could it have sounded any other way, given the scandalous tone of the lead sentence?)

The truly telling information came out in the bottom half of The Globe piece. Farmed salmon had up to 50 parts per billion (ppb) of PCBs, which is well below Canadian federal guidelines of 2,000 ppb. However, one of the report authors suggested that this standard, developed in the 1970s, is out of date and should be reduced to 50 ppb. Which means that the highest concentration of PCBs found in this study would meet the proposed, more stringent regulations information that renders the entire story almost completely pointless.

The reporters in this case did manage to slip in key balancing information, even if it might best be described as nullifying information. And not before playing the most sensational allegations first and loudest, thereby whipping consumers into a frenzy and possibly causing major damage to the fish farming industry.

If a government department had announced a new development scheme that contained an equivalent flaw in logic, the media would catch it and make this gaffe the focus of their story. But when our health is at issue, they set aside rational thinking and run shrieking onto the airwaves and into print.

I invited The Globe and Mail via email to respond to this item, but received no reply. That said, The Globe is not the only offender here. Pretty much every major news outlet played this story the same way. And the hysteria created by this coverage is being perpetuated on the Internet, as a quick Google search for toxins farmed salmon will show.

ACRIMONY OVER ACRYLAMIDES

In 2002, we had another major health scare in the form of acrylamides, which are chemicals reported to cause cancer in animals. Researchers in Sweden found acrylamides in fried foods, like french fires, and even baked foods such as bread and cereal. The acrylamide story received extensive coverage in this country.

In January 2003, CBC TVs Marketplace reported that Health Canada was suppressing test information about acrylamide levels in foods, whereas governments in Sweden, Germany and Norway were issuing all sorts of precautions.

Marketplace has learned that our government is keeping information from you, said reporter Wendy Mesley, who revealed that Health Canada was indeed not telling us about test results they had conducted on our food. And if acrylamides were proven to be dangerous to humans, it would have been a valid story.

But I was always suspicious about this one. Mankind has been eating bread and cereal products in large quantities for hundreds of years; why havent we noticed a cancer correlation?

I went to the CBC Marketplace web site and found an entire section devoted to this story. After some mining, I found what I was looking for under the heading Is acrylamide in food a threat to our health?

According to a scientist with Health Canada, the amounts of acrylamide humans consume on a daily basis is slightly over 1/100th of 1 per cent of the dose, adjusted for body weight, that gave cancer to half of an exposed group of rats.

By my calculation, this means we would need to consume 10,000 times more acrylamide than we do right now, in order to duplicate the experience of those unfortunate rats. If Marketplace had seriously considered this information, they might have concluded that Health Canada was right not to panic about this bogus health crisis.

I invited Marketplace via email to respond, but received no reply.

A LONG HISTORY

While doing Internet research for this article, I found a fascinating essay by David Ropeik, writing for CommonWealth magazine out of Massachusetts. (The magazine appears credible and free of any overt agenda.) Ropeik suggests that editors and reporters develop stories based on risk perception a combination of value-charged factors that trigger audience reaction.

In short, stories about health risks sell, Ropeik writes. Newspaper editors and broadcast news directors want stories the public will notice, stories that sell papers and boost ratings. And reporters who aren't concerned with corporate profits but are interested in their work getting the widest possible audience highlight the aspects of their stories that seem particularly frightening.

The media health scare phenomenon is nothing new. I learned to be cynical about it at an early age from watching my father, Ken Meeker, when he worked as a broadcast journalist. I was just 12 years old in 1969, when the U.S. government banned cyclamates because they caused cancer in eight out of 240 rats that were fed the chemical.

My father covered this story but, to his credit, didn't take the scaremonger approach. He debunked the story by revealing that the lab rats ingested cyclamates at levels equivalent to humans drinking 350 cans of diet soda per day.

Is this starting to sound familiar?

I am not saying that reporters always over-react to such stories. Sometimes, they nip them in the bud. For example, subsequent health scares about other artificial sweeteners, most notably Aspartame, have not been amplified by media (despite falsehoods that persist on the Internet).

And sometimes, it's okay to panic. The media frenzy serves a useful purpose when the threat is real, or when public awareness is necessary. For instance, all the publicity given to SARS, frantic as it was, helped keep that disease from spreading.

What we need, however, are reporters and editors who look more diligently into the science before creating those alarming, sensational headlines.

Now, pass the salmon and french fries please.

UPDATE:

So where does media coverage of the swine flu pandemic fit into all this?

In my view, the headlines were alarmist and often sensational no doubt about that but were at least partially justified, based on the high death rates in Mexico in the early days of the crisis. It took some time for the rest of the world to figure out, as the virus spread, that people in other countries were not dying in nearly the same numbers.

That said, there was potential for the virus to mutate and turn into something more contagious and infinitely more dangerous. And whos to say it wont happen yet? Its this bit of mischief that justifies the intense media scrutiny.

As was the case with SARS, media exposure makes the public more aware of the potential dangers of a fast-moving, possibly fatal virus. The coverage was excessive at times, but it did serve a purpose beyond keeping us informed about the progress of the bug itself (and, yes, scaring us pantless). We learned about the importance of hand washing, staying home if you feel sick (duh) and keeping extra stores of non-perishable food on hand. For the first time, the idea of coughing into ones sleeve versus a cupped hand received wide public exposure.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that the dangers of H1N1 were exaggerated. But thats easy to say now. If the virus killed thousands and our early fears had been justified, then news coverage would have been spot on.

I do question certain aspects of media coverage. In that first week or two, when all hell was breaking loose in Mexico and it looked like we had a global killer on our hands, I wonder why flights particularly from Mexico werent grounded, at least until we knew more about the bug.

To allow air travel to continue as usual was to effectively seed the entire planet with the virus before we knew its full potential. If our worst fears had been justified, it would have been far too late at that point to contain it. And I wonder why the media didnt make more of that story, when it might have made a difference.

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  • Megan
    July 27, 2010 - 14:54

    Thanks for writing this.