One of the rules that I have learned slowly over the years is that the people that write headlines have a very specialized skill that has its own set of rules. Their main job is to attract readers, not to provide information.
Many people that are critical of the news media do not understand that journalists almost never control the headlines chosen for their story and are often quite disappointed with the way that their publication chooses to “sell” their story. Unfortunately, they even get to field the angry correspondence generated by a headline that does not accurately reflect their efforts to provide accurate, balanced information. Almost an identical argument can be made about TV news, especially the local variety that is touted all day long with teasers that end with something like “more at 11”.
I ran across a great example of a headline that does not match the story very well. On 28 February 2006, the BBC web site published a story titled Ill health legacy of atomic bomb: People who survived the atomic bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 are still suffering health problems, a study reports.
The article then describes the study in more detail and reports that it was focused on issues affecting thyroids, a portion of the body that is known to be quite vulnerable to the immediate effects of releases of fission products. This vulnerability is the result of three natural factors that do not affect other organs – thyroids selectively absorb iodine, iodine-131 (with an 8 day half life) is one of the most common of the many isotopes produced by fission events, and iodine is a gas that readily disperses. Here is what the study showed:
Just under 45% – 1,833 – of those studied had malignant tumours, nodules [lumps on the thyroid] and cysts.
Those who were aged under 20 when the atomic bombs dropped had a higher risk of disease than those who had been older.
The researchers, led by Dr Misa Imaizumi, wrote in JAMA: “The present study revealed that, 55 to 58 years after radiation exposure, a significant relationship existed in the prevalence of not only malignant thyroid tumours but also benign thyroid nodules and that the relationship was significantly higher in those exposed at younger ages.
Based on my knowledge of the experiences of people very close to me, I know that thyroid nodules are pretty common and that people can live quite healthy and active lives long after diagnosis with these issues. Apparently, these issues have not proven to be fatal for the bomb survivors – after all, they are still alive sixty years after the bombs exploded.
So I kept reading to find out what kind of “ill health” these survivors had experienced. Here is the conclusion of the story:
“These conditions are rarely fatal, and some people with a thyroid cyst or nodule do not experience any symptoms.
“Therefore, it is difficult to collect information on the relationship between radiation exposure and the subsequent risk of thyroid disease that is free from any bias.”
I may be different from most people, but if I have a disease that allows me to live for sixty years without symptoms that are detectable without a detailed scientific study, I have a hard time considering that I might be experiencing “ill health”. I guess I am a bit weird, but I think that living without symptoms is a lot like living without a disease at all.
In other words, the journalist and the scientists involved in the study have done their job in informing the public, and the headline writer has done his job in getting me to read the story and then promote it to all of you. Don’t get upset by the headline; understand it for the purpose it is intended to serve.