By Roy Benaroch, M.D., Emory University
Does living near high voltage power distribution lines cause health risks such as infertility, leukemia, and birth defects? Do the simple things in life like the food we eat and the air we breathe have risk factors attached? Are these news stories in the media just clickbait that leads to unnecessary fears and poor decision-making? Here, we explore how to interpret the health news stories in the mainstream media to our benefit using the ‘skeptic toolkit’.
Precise Nature of Science Influences Media Interpretation
Sometimes the very nature of science affects the way media represents the health news stories. The New York Times published an article titled “Power Lines Stir Concern on Health Risk,” in the 1990s. The article stated that while the utility companies maintained there were no health risks posed by high voltage power distribution lines, the residents of New Jersey living near those lines were clearly worried. Health issues such as leukemia, infertility, and birth defects were cited as risks associated with prolonged exposure to electric and magnetic fields. The scientific community however, was divided and refused to draw conclusions. Evidence was inconclusive and environmentalists were accused of creating unnecessary panic. But the residents were quite concerned and it was this worry that was driving opinions. Twenty-five years later, a similar study titled “Do High Voltage Power Lines Cause Cancer?” appeared in Forbes magazine. The author argued that smaller studies in the past seemed to indicate the cancer risk, but recent larger and more reliable research studies could not link power lines to health risks. The conclusion was that “Electrical power lines do not cause cancer. But they’re still ugly.”
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In spite of subsequent evidence and consensus that power lines were not a cause of health risks; the worries were never dispelled. The reason for this has been attributed to the exact and honest nature of science in the New York Times article of 2014 titled “Long After the 80s Scare, Suspicion of Power Lines Prevails.” The news piece discussed the changing perspective of one scientist, Dr. David Savitz, whose initial conclusion that children living near power lines and their electromagnetic fields were twice as likely to develop cancer changed to the conclusion that “It’s quite questionable whether these fields cause leukemia at all.” There is more reassurance from well-designed larger studies but it is impossible to prove zero risk using the language of science. This being the nature of science, to a common man statements such as “If there’s a risk present, it’s very small” may not make any sense at all. Such nuances of what constitutes proof, sometimes dilute the important message that power lines are not something people need to worry about. Nonetheless, there is no denying that there are real risks in the environment we live in, and one of them is fear.
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The Skeptic Toolkit: Strength of Evidence and Salience
Every media story should be evaluated based on the two basic litmus tests to qualify as a study worth worrying about or not – the strength of evidence and the salience of information. Large, well-planned studies provide strong proof while the studies on human beings provide salient evidence. If the study is not on humans, then it is less salient and not really reliable.
In 2016, several media stories focused on the preliminary results of a government funded study on the risks associated with the use of cell phones. Of all the news stories, only Consumer Reports headlined the article as “Government Study Finds Link between Cell Phones and Cancer in Rats.” Stories that appeared in both CBS news and The Wall Street Journal did not mention rats at all in their headlines. In the same year, another research centered around 35,000 brain cancer patients in Australia between 1982 and 2012. This study concluded that there was no relationship between the use of cell phones and the occurrence of brain cancer. Ironically, in spite of the study focusing on humans and not rats, it received little attention from the mainstream media.
Sometimes ordinary foods and routine activities are portrayed as risky. These are typical cases when journalists draw broader or stronger conclusions than what is reported by the research study. The London Evening Standard published an article titled “Asparagus Link to Breast Cancer is Discovered by Scientists,” while The Times article headlined “Laying Off Asparagus May Help Beat Breast Cancer” and the Atlanta Journal Constitution published it as “Amino Acid in Asparagus Could Cause the Spread of Cancer, Study Says.” It was alarming to hear that a common food can cause cancer, and it naturally grabbed a lot of media attention. But what these headlines failed to report was that the study was conducted on mice and it was looking at limiting the availability of the amino acid asparagine. The study published in the journal Nature suggested that mice fed on a diet lacking in asparagine exhibited a decline in spread of a genetically programmed breast cancer. Not only that, there was no mention of the vegetable asparagus in the research. Though the LA Times tried to correct the colossal misunderstanding with a headline “No, Asparagus Won’t Give You Cancer, Scientists Plead After Massive Misunderstanding” and stating that this was a classic case of journalism gone astray, the damage was done.
This is a transcript from the video series The Skeptic’s Guide to Health, Medicine, and the Media. Watch it now, Wondrium.
Does the Health News Story Make Sense?
Apart from strength and salience, the other tool from the skeptic toolkit is ‘sense’. Is the news piece sensible or does the story make any sense? In 2018, The Newsweek highlighted one such fake story on vaccines written to deliberately misguide people. It said that the flu outbreaks were being caused by the flu shots itself. The Newsweek article headlined “Facebook Spreads Viral Fake News Story about Vaccines” emphasized that social media sites such as Facebook were helping propagation of such fake news pieces. The fake story was shared by more than 60,000 people making it one of the top four articles of the week. Social media websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and several others are struggling to contain the problem of fake news. The purpose of health news stories should be to minimize risks but those risks should be represented accurately and within context. Using the S-word of sense here, it would be prudent to question if it makes sense that flu vaccines which have been used worldwide for decades were actually responsible for flu outbreaks.
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Common Questions about Tips to Analyze the Health News Stories in the Mass Media
The skeptic tools that should be used to distinguish good reporting from bad include strength of evidence, salience of information, and sensibility of the news story.
The typical factors that have an influence on media coverage include government, advertisers, interest groups, and competition from other media houses.
Social media has played a big role in the spread of health-related misinformation in recent times. Social media platforms are grappling to handle the propagation of misinformation and making sweeping policy changes to limit the spread.
Yes, media has an impact on health decisions as people are easily influenced by the health news stories that appear in the mass media.