Annals of Amplification in Journalism

In recent years, we’ve seen episodic waves of hysteria over reports of brain tumors and other cancers allegedly caused by cell phones and WiFi. If I had to trace this legacy of electromagnetic fear back in time, I would credit a 1979 study in the American Journal of Epidemiology and a series of  articles in the New Yorker (under the “Annals of Radiation” subheading) by Paul Brodeur in the 1980s and early 1990s. In one piece, Brodeur reported on

a link between childhood-cancer & magnetic fields from power lines.

In another, he discussed “the epidemiological & experimental data” that linked video-display terminals to birth defects.”

Brodeur wrote two related books. The first was published in 1993 and titledThe Great Power line Cover-Up: How the Utilities and Government Are Trying to Hide the Cancer Hazard Posed by Electromagnetic Fields. The second came out in 2000 and was called, Currents of Death: Power Lines, Computer Terminals, and the Attempt to Cover up their Threat to Your Health. 

In his 1993 Businessweek review, John Carey wrote of The Great Power Line Cover-Up:

A little knowledge of this controversy, or even a close perusal of the book, turns up enough inconsistencies, dubious interpretations, and selective reporting to cast immense doubt on the whole argument–and to reveal Brodeur as more zealot than journalist.

A long-time writer for the New Yorker (late 1950s to mid-1990s), Brodeur is also the author of a 1978 book called, The Zapping of America: Microwaves, Their Deadly Risk, and Cover-up. What was zapping us? In an interview with People magazine at the time, Brodeur asserted:

Radars of all types, FM radio and TV transmitters, millions of CB radios and, of course, microwave ovens.

Those fears appear to have ebbed (though I still occasionally meet someone who refuses to microwave food). But the power lines are causing cancer meme has persisted, fed by periodic media reports and crusading public health professionals, such as David Carpenter, Director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the State University of New York at Albany, who links “magnetic field exposure” to brain tumors Leukemia, and neurodegenerative diseases. A 1995 PBS Frontline investigation of the issue features parents convinced that high voltage power lines had sickened their children. Brodeur and Carpenter were interviewed in the segment and each talked up the medical hazards of “magnetic fields.”

For an excellent dissection of the great power line and cell phone scare, read this New Republic piece by Ezekiel Emanuel, a bioethicist at the American National Institutes of Health. In the last three decades, over a hundred studies conducted in many countries have looked at the association between magnetic fields and cancer, and the evidence is not there, he said. “Multiple organizations, including the World Health Organization, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and the European Union’s Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks, all cast doubt on the links, suggesting further research,”  Emanuel wrote.

The U.S. National Academies of Science has found

no conclusive and consistent evidence shows that exposures to residential electric and magnetic fields produce cancer, adverse neurobehavioral effects, or reproductive and developmental effects.

Of course, none of this prevents a certain element of society from exploiting the issue for monetary gain. And the true believers, led by Carpenter, have just released a massively deceptive report (actually an update) that the Science-Based Medicine blog has methodically dismantled.

Oddly, science journalists appear to have shied away from probing this long-running saga. If they did, revisiting Paul Brodeur’s influential role in the whole affair would be unavoidable. Perhaps that is reason enough to stay journalistically clear of electromagnetic fields. (I’m kidding.)

But given the recurring nature of this story (with cell phones and WiFi being the latest variant), it’s unlikely science journalists will be able to stay away from it. If the epidemiological studies keep coming and activists keep whipping up public fear, there is a need for critical analysis. Unfortunately, some media that are more accustomed to trumpeting environmental and public health concerns than critically examining the merits of them, will not help in that department. For example, here’s a 2008 Mother Jones story:

The list of conditions that researchers have associated with electromagnetic radiation includes trouble focusing, fatigue, headaches, sleep disturbances, and Alzheimer’s.

So far, no one has been able to explain exactly how these seemingly benign waves could lead to cancer, much less this laundry list of medical woes, and for that reason, few scientists are willing to say for sure that cell phone use will make you sick—or that it won’t.

Actually, there is one good explanation that seems to explain why some may feel they are falling ill because of power lines or WiFi signals. A new study published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research has found:

Media reports about the adverse effects of supposedly hazardous substances can increase the likelihood of experiencing symptoms following sham exposure and developing an apparent sensitivity to it.”

The researchers used a BBC documentary on the alleged dangers and health effects of electromagnetic fields. Participants watching the documentary–who were led to believe they were being closely exposed to a WiFi signal (they weren’t)–exhibited symptoms associated with exposure to electromagnetic fields. (I’ve previously discussed this Nocebo effect with respect to Wind Turbine Syndrome.) Those most symptomatic were also found to have pre-existing anxieties and sensitivities that made them more susceptible.

The finding led researchers to ask in the title of their study:

Are media warnings about the adverse health effects of modern life self-fulfilling?

They need not be, the authors conclude:

If inaccurate media portrayals of novel technologies or substances can produce adverse effects on the wellbeing of vulnerable members of the public, one obvious implication is that journalists should endeavor to provide more accurate reporting. Calls from scientists for better science and health reporting are nothing new, however and any change is likely to come slowly. In the meantime, we can only urge scientists working in these areas to stay engaged with the media to ensure that stories about the potential health impact of new technologies are adequately informed by the best available evidence.


9 Responses to “Annals of Amplification in Journalism”

  1. Ed Forbes says:

    Keith “…Of course, none of this prevents a certain element of society from exploiting the issue for monetary gain…”

    LoL…Something like pushing for windmills and solar subsidies perhaps

  2. Right–the amplification. I see what you mean.

    But these easy-to-grasp claims “_____ causes cancer!1!” or “______ is a miracle1!1” are so spreadable. And so hard to dislodge. Even if you are trying to stay engaged. Some of us just don’t have the same kind of megaphone that misinformation brokers have.

    And these zombie memes come ’round again. And again. And again.

  3. Joshua says:

    Once again – IMO, these phenomena need to be considered in full balance:

    If inaccurate media portrayals of novel technologies or substances can produce adverse effects on the wellbeing of vulnerable members of the public, one obvious implication is that journalists should endeavor to provide more accurate reporting.

    So what are the answers?:

    (1) We should only allow fully-accurate reporting. Hmmm. Seems a tad unrealistic, ya’ think?

    (2) Which shouldn’t allow any science reporting. Hmmm. Not a very good answer, IMO. Even if we could prove that the “adverse effects” of inaccurate reporting are larger in balance than the positive effects we might be having from accurate reporting ( good luck with proving that, btw) – I’m not sure shutting down the media would be the desired objective here. (And, actually, if we think about it, the effects from inaccurate reporting may not all turn out to be “adverse,” – although that isn’t a defense of inaccurate reporting.)

    Now obviously, a 3rd option would be, as the authors of the JoPR study suggest…

    In the meantime, we can only urge scientists working in these areas to stay engaged with the media to ensure that stories about the potential health impact of new technologies are adequately informed by the best available evidence.

    Like with Goldilocks – it seems that the third option is “just right.” So then I have a question:

    Is there some point at which focusing on inaccurate reporting, as a general phenomenon, actually turns counterproductive, to be fear-mongering about fear-mongering?

    Focusing on context-specific inaccuracies makes total sense to me – but it seems to me that many times the focus we see on inaccurate reporting suggests that people have some expectation of Shangri-La, where we could expect reporting that is only and always accurate – and anything less is a cause for despair or an assumption that it’s time to head for the bunkers because we’re going to hell in a hand-basket.

    I think that portraying ourselves as victims of media sensationalism (easy there, Keith, I’m speaking generally here) misses the most important way to affect positive change here; introspective examination of our own biases.

    There will always be sensationalistic and inaccurate reporting and there always has been: same ol’ same ol’. Sure, we can find inaccurate information all around us, but despite that reality, we have also more access to accurate information than we ever have in the past Has the ratio of accurate/inaccurate reporting changed in some way? Maybe – I’d love to see some analysis. But the media ain’t the problem.

    We have met the enemy, and it is us.

  4. Tom Scharf says:

    Bad science is with us for the long term. Most of it is simply produced by poorly trained mediocre scientists. A little bit of it is produced by people with agendas. A little bit of it is good science twisted by others who have agendas.

    The media has very little discipline for not reporting a “surprising”, and often inaccurate, result. This puts in perverse incentives as those making the most outlandish and questionable claims tend to be the best rewarded in many cases.

    In the end Joe Public just uses their BS filter. Linkage of anything to cancer is universally disregarded now. Beyond not smoking people have tuned it all out, and wisely so.

    At this point I universally ignore almost any result that uses the term “linkage” which usually means a correlation was found without any strong case for causation. This type of science has gotten completely out of control.

    Correlation is cheap and easy, and easily exploited with bad statistics. Causation is hard, and what separates the men from the boys in science.

  5. JonFrum says:

    And how did we get to this point? Who was it that conditioned the population do be paranoid hypochondriacs? Who made people fear the modern industrial world? Errr….. that would be mainstream 1970s-era environmentalists. They went over the top to get the legislation they wanted, and now we live with the results.

  6. bobito says:

    I think you overestimate the effectiveness of Joe Public’s BS filter. People will believe what they want to believe. And very few have any desire to prove themselves wrong.

  7. Georg Schoen says:

    Here in Germany
    we have a lot of fuss about cellphone tranmitters on

    roofs, towers and so on. There were two occasions (I know of, maybe there were more of them)
    when “sufferers” went to court but the cell phone company
    demonstrated that the transmitter was not in operation yet :=)

  8. Steve Dibert says:

    So? I can trace it back to an episode of Space 1999 from 1975 where magnetic radiation was killing people and caused an explosion that pushed the moon into deep space.

  9. Tom Gray says:

    Or like shilling for fossil fuels by propagating misinformation about the supposed public safety hazards of wind, which is an increasingly serious competitor.–Tom Gray, Communications Consultant, American Wind Energy Association

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