Friday, January 6, 2012

Nuclear Power and the Press:

Getting it Right vs. Making a Splash

Last year (actually a couple of months ago), someone shared an article on a Columbia Journalism Review critique of an Associated Press article on possible cancer risks from Fukushima. The review points out that the article gets the facts right, but spins the message. For example, the title of the article is "Future cancers from Fukushima plant may be hidden." The first line of the article says, "Even if the worst nuclear accident in 25 years leads to many people developing cancer, we may never find out."

So, not only may people get cancer from Fukushima, we won't even know they are getting cancer from Fukushima. Scary, right? The CJR review continues by saying that is just the point. The article itself refutes the title, citing one expert saying, "The cancer risk may be absent...," another as saying that the 2 million residents of Fukushima Prefecture probably got too little radiation to have a noticeable effect on cancer rates, and yet a third who said that, from what he'd seen, nobody in Fukushima except for some plant workers has been exposed to harmful levels of radiation.

OK, I'm cherry picking here, too, as several quotes talk about risk levels too small to detect--and that is where the authors have picked up their headline. However, my very point is that the headline and the lead-in to the article don't promote the idea that the cancer risk may be very low or even non-existent. Rather, they just say it will be "hidden." That actually sounds more ominous than a specific, but small, number. By contrast, as I read the quotes, I would probably have titled the article "Few if any cancers expected from Fukushima accident." But that wouldn't sell newspapers. And that is probably why I went into engineering, and not journalism.

But the story reminded me of several other news items I'd come across in the same vein--that is, articles that slant the coverage in one way or another. The Nuclear Energy Institute did a great analysis of a series in the Associated Press a few months ago on safety at US nuclear power plants. (It should be noted that the CJR, at NEI's request, looked into that series. While it largely agreed with NEI's criticism of the reporting, it also critiqued NEI's response.)

Some more specific examples, especially of headlines, are also of interest. For example, Reuters came out with a story at around that same time on the post-Fukushima review of the nuclear reactors in France. The title of the Reuters article was "France needs to upgrade all nuclear reactors." The first paragraph of the article states that the head of the French nuclear safety agency [IRSN] said that France "needs to upgrade the protection of vital functions in all its nuclear reactors to avoid a disaster in the event of a natural calamity," but goes on to say--in that first paragraph--that there is no need to close any plants. Other media that picked up this story entitled it "Are all of France's nuclear power plants unsafe?" and in their first paragraphs, stated (without citing a source) that French nuclear power plants are "unsafe and need a massive overhaul."

For the final example I want to highlight today, it is Reuters that goes for the sensational title. In this case, it is a report on the release of a draft of the International Energy Agency's 2011 World Energy Outlook. The title reads "Exclusive: IEA draft: Nuclear to fall as power demand." I'd say that sounds like a prediction, right? Reading the article, we see that this was the low nuclear case, and there is a specific quote in the report that the low nuclear case is not a forecast but "is intended to illustrate what a pessimistic view of the prospects for the nuclear power industry might entail."

I also note that the IEA later slammed the press for jumping to publish its story based on a partial draft that IEA said had been revised and updated, and its own press release when the report was later published makes it clear that this was intended to illustrate the significant consequences of a major reduction in the use of nuclear energy. In fact, the primary scenario shows a significant growth in nuclear power, even with the consequences of the Fukushima accident factored in. The WEO-2011 report is available for purchase from IAE, but a very good summary has been posted on-line by the World Nuclear Association. Furthermore, in the wake of the publication of the report, the IAE has been vocal on the need for nuclear power, both in general and for specific countries such as Japan.

All the above is not intended as a rant against journalism, or against hard-hitting reporting. However, I do feel justified in complaining about one-sided reporting, or about misleading reporting. I realize that a sensational headline sells newspapers (or whatever media is being used), and that we are unlikely to see these kinds of practices ending anytime soon. Nevertheless, just as the press ideally helps keep our institutions honest, I feel a duty to call the press out when it is less than completely honest.


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