Fukushima and the harm of inaccurate reporting

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The World Health Organisation has released a preliminary report into the health impacts of Fukushima. The main conclusion of the report was that there may be a small increase in cancer in the region around Fukushima. In general media headlines did a reasonable job reflecting this, with words such as “slight,” “little” and “small”appearing in most of them, as a google news search shows:


A noteable exception however was The Guardian, which choose something rather more alarming:


“Cancer risk 70% higher for females in Fukushima area, says WHO.” A quick look at the text shows that the 70% refers to female infants, and thyroid cancers. Now, it should be clear to anyone that infants are a subset of women and thyroid cancer is a subset of cancer. I sent a short tweet to The Guardian’s environment team and their environment web editor Adam Vaughan to see if I could get the headline corrected, and proceeded to defend it.



Quite astonishingly Vaughan saw nothing wrong with the headline:

A rather remarkable admission that totally misleading lines are acceptable. Vaughan then suggested that I contact the reader’s editor, re-iterated that the headline was accurate, and then blocked me on Twitter.

This is the kind of behaviour and reporting you expect from someone like James Delingpole, not a reporter at a supposedly serious newspaper such as The Guardian. Consider if a woman who had lived in Fukushima in March 2011, and had been exposed to radiation in March 2011 read this headline. She would probably respond with an understandable amount of fear, and all because of irresponsible journalism. The headline and Vaughan’s response to criticism are both fundamentally unethical and a sad reflection of how ideology can trump human decency.

People affected by the Fukushima disaster deserve accurate information, and not shameful alarmism, which in itself may cause serious health impacts.


14 thoughts on “Fukushima and the harm of inaccurate reporting

    Vinny Burgoo said:
    March 1, 2013 at 8:57 pm

    ‘The dragonfly family has more species than any other mammal.’ – Adam Vaughan

    That stood for three whole days, so there’s hope yet.


      Albert Rogers said:
      March 2, 2013 at 8:15 pm

      Can one make cheese from dragonfly milk? If so, which is the ideal species?


    Jean-Marc Desperrier (@jm_desp) said:
    March 1, 2013 at 9:04 pm

    I think the following is important and too long to write on twitter.
    First M Vaughan should read the report at page 56 :
    “Even with a low number of “extra” cases of thyroid cancer (absolute risk), the very low baseline incidence of the disease results in a large relative increase as represented by the LFR (of 70%).
    However, when the level of baseline incidence is that small, the actual number of “extra” cases is likely to be small also; therefore, the impact in terms of public health would be limited.”

    But also second, as visible on page 38, the reference for this elevated risk is a 1 year old girl who was not relocated during first 4 month and ate contaminated food from the area. In that specific situation, the report estimates kids would have received a thyroid dose of 12-25 mSv. The OMS acknowledges it’s using assumptions that may lead to a dose overestimation.

    Only Iitate (and the surrounding villages) was in a zone likely to receive that dose, it was evacuated on 11 April. From 28 to 30 March 2011, 1080 kids from those zones have been tested, and almost half actually had no detectable thyroid irradiation. 99% had a dose corresponding to a cumulative exposure of less than 20 mSv. It has not been published how many had less than 12 mSv, but given the high percentage were it was not detectable it sound likely it’s a significant proportion.

    So very few people are concerned by this risk, only from the most exposed area, and even in those, many people did not receive enough radiations, especially if they did not stay outdoor (which in the circumstances is unlikely for a 1 year old kid).


    Joffan said:
    March 1, 2013 at 9:22 pm

    You are absolutely correct and the Guardian is wrong. Their headline is false. They could reasonably say: “Thyroid cancer risks may be up to 70% higher for some young girls in the Fukushima area, says WHO”. But their headline as it stands is simply wrong.

    We also know that UNSCEAR has established that the doses used by WHO are at least a factor of two high, and detailed readin of the report reveals that WHO rejected the use of the correct DDREF to apply a strict – and experiementally disproven – version of LNT, also a factor 2 high. So after all this conservatively, we get back to approximately zero cases of additional cancer from Fukushima contamination.


    Decarbonise SA said:
    March 2, 2013 at 1:37 am

    Robert, I agree. That is inaccurate, and grossly irresponsible.


    Decarbonise SA said:
    March 2, 2013 at 1:39 am

    Reblogged this on Decarbonise SA and commented:
    Once again Carbon Counter has been quick of the mark with the recent release of the WHO report from Fukushima. We suffer from this type of thing quite a bit, especially from sections of our ABC. It’s great to see The Guardian being called out. We all deserve better.


      Robert Wilson said:
      March 2, 2013 at 3:12 am

      Thanks for the reblog.

      I think incidents such as this show how difficult it is to change the debate in what I guess you could call the house media of the environment movement. Most major news outlets got a reporter to cover the WHO report. The Guardian only saw fit to borrow a story from Reuters, and put an alarmist headline on it. News outlets such as The Guardian or The Huffington Post/Mother Jones/Grist et al. mostly just run what can be given an anti-nuclear spin.

      Grist a couple of days ago ran a “Japan is going nuclear, Fukushima be damned story” (http://grist.org/news/japan-is-going-nuclear-again-fukushima-be-damned/). Naturally they just ignored the WHO story. These tendencies need to combated, but whether any should aim to change their minds is another issue.

      Fortunately the mainstream press is now doing a much better job. There are clear signs that a grown up debate is now shaping up, even if it hasn’t penetrated the environment movement a great deal.


    Albert Rogers said:
    March 2, 2013 at 2:59 am

    The really dreadful thing about all this is that the loss of those reactors at Fukushima Daiichi will result in more sickness from pollution — from the acid gases and heavy metals in the effluent and ash of the coal and gas burning to replace the lost power. Not to mention the insane response of Germany, where I believe that there has never been seen a tsunami.


    joffan7 said:
    March 2, 2013 at 3:49 pm

    Even HuffPo wrote a better headline:
    “Fukushima-Area Cancer Risks Are Higher Than Normal After Japan Nuclear Disaster, WHO Reports”

    Maybe we should be thankful that the Guardian headline wasn’t “WHO: 70% cancer increase from Fukushima”. Or maybe they were fraternally leaving some alarmism space for enenews.


      David said:
      March 2, 2013 at 4:19 pm

      Joffan7 Nah. Guardian could hardly have made headline any worse. Females have the most concerns about radiation/nuclear power and this is really written squarely for them. It’s a right piece of work. Actually in this respect specifically mentioning infants or babies probably wouldn’t have helped at all..


    hypergeometric said:
    March 2, 2013 at 4:50 pm

    BTW, Berliner makes the same kind of case as Spigelhalter with respect to reporting and conveying climate disruption impacts: http://researchnews.osu.edu/archive/allornothing.htm and Stahel makes the point that part of the difficulty with adapting to climate change is it interacts with many other pressing and pre-existing issues. See http://www.genevaassociation.org/pdf/News/1001%20AIR.pdf


    Writing from Japan said:
    March 3, 2013 at 3:07 pm

    Most people in Japan don’t read the Guardian. I’m pretty sure that’s why Adam Vaughn is depressingly unconcerned with the accuracy of his headline. He probably thinks the headline is harmless clickbait. After all, conscientious readers can look at the “standfirst” (ie read the article) to find out that the headline is wrong. After all, isn’t that how all headlines work? So, no harm done. Er…

    Here’s how these sorts of things have been playing out over here in Japan over the past couple of years. Headline gets reproduced through twitter and through various anti-nuclear sites (ENEnews, Fukushima Diary etc.) without the “standfirst”. In Japan quite a few like to add some conspiracy spice in the form of “this is only in foreign newspapers because the Japanese government controls the information you can hear”. (We even (mostly?) get this line when the foreign journalists have simply been cribbing off the English language news services of Japanese media.)

    If they follow previous patterns of behaviour, the conspiracists (who have quite a hold on the frightened and paranoid, and a couple of “mainstream” journalists as well) will do something like this. They will look not only at the “70% rise in cancers” but also the “Fukushima area”, and start spreading fear that adjacent areas (aka “prefectures” containing over ten million people) are only a bit less threatened (say, 50% increase in cancers? Look, here’s a story about someone with cancer to back it up). And it all adds to the fearmongering project, which only serves to do a large amount of harm to people unaffected by radiation.

    So accurate journalism – including getting the headlines right – matters half-way around the globe, especially if you’re publishing in English.

    All Adam Vaughn had to do was change the headline to something more accurate (most other places managed without prompting), and he refused even after prompting. What’s his motive?


    Colin said:
    March 4, 2013 at 7:55 pm

    On the day it appeared the “short headline” that appeared on the front of the Guardian’s Environment page was simply: “70% cancer risk in Fukushima area”

    Wish I’d taken a screenshot of it.

    In reality the risk of thyroid cancer increased for 1-year-old girls from 0.75% to 1.25% only in the village with the highest dose.

    i.e. the 70% risk was a relative increase from 0.75% to 1.25%, not an absolute risk.

    The NYT covered it more truthfully.


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