Head case study
The reporting of the latest mobile phone scare provides an interesting case-study in media coverage of health and science issues. On 4 April 2000, all of the main national newspapers dutifully covered the Consumer Association report claiming that hands-free mobile earpiece kits increase the amount of radiation channelled into the user's head. More detailed comparison of the news items, however, reveals different approaches to communication about health risks.
The SIRC/Royal Institution Code of Practice recommends that any caveats, such as the fact that there is no reliable evidence of any risk to health, should be clearly stated very early in any article – preferably within the first two paragraphs – and that where a claim is unproven, headline-writers should indicate this by using qualifiers or at least putting the controversial claim in quotation marks. None of the papers followed the first of these guidelines to the letter, although the Guardian came very close by devoting the third and fourth paragraphs to doubts about the harmful effects of mobiles. The Guardian also used a less alarmist headline than the other papers, gave more detailed information and adopted a more rational, scientific tone – their health correspondent Sarah Boseley wins today's SIRC 'Naming and Praising' award for this. The Telegraph's report is not quite as informative, but also relatively calm and reasonable.
The Sun, on the other hand, is bottom of today's league table, with a totally unqualified scaremongering headline and not a single mention of any problems with the evidence on mobile phone risks. The Mail subjects readers to a staggering 26 paragraphs of unproven scares about mobiles before grudgingly acknowledging, in the final line on page four, that there is no firm evidence of any risk. The Express (whose web site incidentally carries advertisements for mobile phones alongside its frequent scare-stories on this subject) is not much better, with an unqualified headline and no mention of caveats until the sixth paragraph. The Times and The Independent are slightly more responsible, putting the Consumer Association claims in quotes in their headlines. The Times mentions lack of evidence of risk in the fifth paragraph, and expands on this in the seventh. The Independent, however, adopts the traditional scare-story approach of leaving all such caveats to the final paragraph. The Mirror reports the story in a much more responsible manner, with appropriate quotation marks in the headline, the qualifier 'claims' in the first sentence, and caveats in both the third and final paragraphs – reminding us that the so-called 'quality' broadsheets can often be less thoughtful and rational than their tabloid rivals.
The scientific status of a report in a consumer magazine, not subject to peer review or any other control, was of course not questioned by any of the papers. Now did any paper seem to consider the 'crying-wolf effect' of constantly bombarding the public with highly dubious, unproven health scares, such that, as our own research has shown, the majority are now suffering from 'warning-fatigue' and have ceased to pay any attention. When there really is a wolf – a genuine health risk – it will be lost in the dangerous noise-pollution of unfounded scaremongering. Careless talk costs lives.