Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Lies, damned lies, and headlines

(Updated, to add a headline. Oh, the irony).

This is, maybe, a story of how crap science reporting starts with the headline.
Actually, it hardly ever does: The story arrives, gets written by a journalist, and the headline is probably the last piece of the puzzle, going through sub-editors and final print editors before being set in stone (or, well, type. Or hypertext).
But how does the innocent reader arrive at a story? Via the headline.
Which makes it important.
The story is this:
A long-term (10 year retrospective) and large (nearly 13,000 users) study of mobile phone usage, investigating links with cancer (yes, another one), showed no definite results either way save for the top 10% of users, who had an up to 40% greater risk of developing a brain tumour, based upon self-reported usage patterns, which are methodologically one of the weakest ways of assessing actual usage and introduces problems the study authors are not shy to point out.
These are the headlines from four media outlets:
ABC News (copy sourced from Reuters, headline by ABC): Mobile phone-cancer link study inconclusive
Courier Mail (based upon the Australian story): Brain cancer link to mobile phones
Did you experience a sinking feeling as you read down? You should have.
The only dedicated science outlet uses a catchy, populist approach to combine the main finding (no real link) and the main problem (not reliable enough). The ABC goes for a direct and accurate but hardly exciting approach. The Australian pulls out the most news-worthy finding to focus upon and ignored 90% of users, and the Courier Mail just throws everything to the wind and goes with a misleading title for a report written to emphasise just one finding and foment debate.
It's depressing, it really is.
The media has an important, even central, frequently even solitary, part to play in informing the public and part of that is, some of us would like to believe, a responsibility to be accurate and not monger fear or incite hysteria.
I would also like to think that if we assume the public is intelligent enough to read an article saying "probably not, but there may be a risk if you do something a lot", we may be astonished to find out they are.
And then there's historical perspective.
The fifth paragraph in the Reuters/ABC copy is this:
Years of research have failed to establish a connection.
And do you really think people haven't tried, really hard? I've been using a mobile for ten years now and I remember the debate happening years before I started.
Basic Principle of Coping With Reality: It's complicated, it's not your only risk factor, and if it was really a problem we'd probably have found something by now.
We'd also have found a link to testicular and uterine cancer from all the phones carried on or about hips, I'm thinking.
Consider as well just how any radio waves saturate the air from TV, radio and other people's mobiles, as well as short-wave, long-wave and GPS radio signals. If you're going to worry about electromagnetic radiation, a mobile is the least of your problems.
As a bonus: Look up the difference between ionising and non-ionising radiation. I leave that as an exercise for the reader.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Motorbike accidents in the media: part the radial 7.

Hmmm... There is a lesson in the fact that my only blog posts have late have been ones I felt obliged to write, because I had promised to...

But: Yes! For better or worse, there has been at least one 7-cylinder motorbike.
Anyway, a small bag today, of small articles.

Story 1:

First up is four pars from the ABC back on Sunday May 2: "Biker dies after hitting gutter".

Police say it appears the 30-year-old man hit a gutter while riding his motorcycle yesterday afternoon in Templestowe.

He lost control, landed in a garden bed, died in hospital.

Once again, the article is okay - in fact this one reads a little more smoothly than some small, dashed-off news articles - but the unanswered questions are rather interesting - swerved to avoid another vehicle, or lost control, or just bad judgement? Something in his eye?

And was he conscious when the police arrived? Nothing else is quoted, so I'm assuming that nothing else newsworthy came out, such as him being run off the road. Or, police didn't believe him, but let's not go there.

The interesting part about this article, however, is that it goes from "motorbike" to "motorcycle" to "bike". I'm not sure if there's an ABC standard for "motorcycle" or "motorbike". I'll have to look into it.

The two words certainly make hash-tagging tricky in twitter - which one do you go for?

Story 2:

Even earlier, from April 29, the Courier Mail has "Motorcyclist hits kangaroo near Texas".
That's Texas, Queensland, folks.

Eight paragraphs, but three are of them are for a separate incident.

Thursday morning, no indication of how early, and injuries multiple, severe but apparently not life-threatening.

I sincerely hope his head's okay.

This highlights one of the big problems with Australia - our native animals tend to be large, heavy and extremely stupid. It's not such a big problem when something cat-sized wanders across the road, although even that can be difficult for a motorcyclist who's not paying attention, but when something fast-moving that weighs more than 100kg jumps in front of you, running off-road and crashing can sometimes be preferable.

The most interesting part of this article is that "the 37-year-old man's motorbike hit the roo". This is a trend in all road accident stories - the driver/rider collides, the vehicle hit. Did the vehicle exhibit sentience and self-determination? No, I don't think so. It's a lazy journalistic short-cut, is what that is.

Overall, fairly well written and with good quotes.

Story 3:

Forget for the moment that whoever wrote that headline needs to be slapped, feast your eyes in incredulity upon what it says.

If the idiot who strung up said bags is caught, do you think they'll be charged with attempted murder? Somehow, a quote like "mischievous behaviour" from the police doesn't really inspire confidence.

As commenters have pointed out, that could easily have been lethal, and a rope or fishing line could have been lethal much more easily.

I'm not sure if I'm less happy with the police response or the journalist for that one, but it really wasn't a great effort.

Story 4:

Finally, returning to the ABC: "Two die in single-vehicle crashes".
Seven paragraphs, the final four devoted to a man in his 20s crashing on the Maleny-Stanley River road.
Now, as I have previously remarked, this stretch of road, which links to the last one, is extraordinarily fun.
It is also potentially quite treacherous, with overhanging trees and suspect verges making gravel patches and wet leaves almost inevitable, particularly before dawn (4:30am) at that altitude and at this time of year, when dew can make a difference.
The forensic crash unit is investigating, apparently. Honestly, with the best will in the world, I can't suggest anything more complicated than that he ran out of talent. His brakes may have grabbed, something else may have failed, but someone on that road at that time is more than likely to have been enjoying themselves.
Sadly, he's not around to tell us and we may never know.

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