The SORRY STATE of science reporting on CNN

The appalling arrogance of CNN’s Nancy Grace and her mistrust of science

I have been irradiated.
I am not afraid to die.
This is my job.

– A member of the ‘Fukushima 50’

The Fukushima 50 have already attained mythic status in Japan as a result of their courageous and humbling endeavours to try and control the nuclear crisis, full in the knowledge that at worst they may die from exposure to lethal doses of radiation.

Many of the Fukushima 50 have been working round the clock, enduring exposure levels 10,000 times greater than normal. A few men received severe radiation burns following exposure to contaminated water whilst busy trying to cool reactor cores and refusing to wear protective rubber boots. This refusal to give up trying to save their country from a nuclear meltdown has led to these men being named ‘Atomic Samurai.’

In samples of seawater taken from around the plant, radioactivity levels have measured far beyond legal safety limits. Tap water tested over 100 miles from Fukushima has shown levels above what is considered safe for children to drink. Japanese authorities are encouraging residents living within the 20-30km exclusion zone to leave the area.

No one would argue that concerns over radiation in Japan are at all unjustified. What is unjustified however, is the evoked fear that radioactive particles blown across the Pacific Ocean pose a significant risk to the public on the West Coast of the United States.

Frequently wrong but never in doubt, Nancy Grace, host of CNN’s Headline News show on the HLN channel, had a war of words last week with meteorologist Bernie Rayno, who was invited onto the show to explain the scientific risk behind this fear. In the interview, Grace arrogantly rejected Rayno’s scientific reasoning for her own arbitrary and uninformed thoughts – something that I cannot stand.

Nancy Grace graduated with a law degree from Mercer University, Georgia, and has a master’s in law from N.Y.U. She is not by any means unintelligent, which is precisely why it is so infuriating to see her deliberately fear-mongering whilst flying in the face of expert analysis. Why invite someone on to your show and then refuse to let them speak if not for nothing but public effect and a lack of manners? Oh and that state of emergency that Grace claims California announced following the radiation risk? It doesn’t exist:

As the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has said, as well as other public health experts, we do not expect to see radiation levels of concern reaching the U.S. from the damaged Japanese nuclear power plant.

– Official statement

Since March 11th, continued stateside air monitoring has reported only trace amounts of radioactive particles including iodine-131 hitting the coast – amounts so small that they are considered utterly harmless.

Despite every major authority worth listening to reassuring the American people that these levels do not pose any kind of public risk, widespread panic has lead to a surge in sales of anti-radiation medicine such as potassium iodide tablets (some retailers are selling what little remaining stock they have left at 30-50 times its usual price), and an increase in the sale of Geiger counters and gas masks.

This panic buying amongst paranoid Americans has the potential to lead to shortages of potassium iodide medication in Japan where it is most likely to be needed. Furthermore, taking potassium iodide inappropriately (i.e. when there’s no radiation) can have serious side effects and can be very dangerous to people with thyroid problems or certain allergies.

Some of the public’s concern over these trace radiation levels comes from the media stir-up exemplified by Nancy Grace and her awful programme, but the fact that many people do not realise that we are all exposed to radiation all of the time has compounded much of these fears. It can often be difficult to comprehend the risks and in light of this created this helpful chart:

Click for full size image

Nancy Grace as a journalist clearly has no understanding of the science behind these risks, and I can only presume she has no desire to understand them at all following her decision to ignore the effect of wind and rain dispersal over 5,000 miles and several days on radioactive particles.

Perhaps the views of experts like Bernie Rayno (who I applaud for staying lighthearted and keeping his cool) are being disregarded because of a presumption that nuclear experts must naturally be supporters of nuclear power, and it’s therefore in their best interests to downplay the risk. Fiona Fox, Director of the Science Media Centre seems to think that this might be happening, and explains in detail why this presumption is flawed.

Most of the media has been inspiring in its round the clock coverage of the events that have unfolded in Japan over the last 2 weeks, but that is not to say that mistakes have not been made: this week for example, Fox news mistakenly identified a Tokyo nightclub as a nuclear powerplant. Seriously.

As some bloggers and critics have pointed out – faux pas like Grace’s say more about the sorry state of science communication than they do about bad journalism. But while bad journalism can often be forgiven, purposefully flying in the face of evidence cannot.

For a collection of all of the questionable journalism on the crisis in Japan visit the Japan Quake Journalist Wall of Shame, where Nancy Grace and others are rightly being held to account.


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