This post is by Phil Price.
A reporter once told me that the worst-kept secret of journalism is that every story has errors. And it’s true that just about every time I know about something first-hand, the news stories about it have some mistakes. Reporters aren’t subject-matter experts, they have limited time, and they generally can’t keep revisiting the things they are saying and checking them for accuracy. Many of us have published papers with errors — my most recent paper has an incorrect figure — and that’s after working on them carefully for weeks!
One way that reporters can try to get things right is by quoting experts. Even then, there are problems with taking quotes out of context, or with making poor choices about what material to include or exclude, or, of course, with making a poor selection of experts.
Yesterday, I was interviewed by an NPR reporter about the risks of breathing radon (a naturally occurring radioactive gas): who should test for it, how dangerous is it, etc. I’m a reasonable person to talk to about this, having done my post-doc and several subsequent years of research in this area, although that ended about ten years ago. Andrew and I, and other colleagues, published several papers, including a decision analysis paper that encompasses most of what I think I know about radon risk in the U.S. In this case, the reporter had a good understanding of the fact that the risk is very small at low concentrations; that the risk per unit exposure is thought to be much higher for smokers than for non-smokers; and that the published estimates of radon deaths are based on the unrealistic comparison to people being exposed to no radon at all. He had a much more sophisticated understanding than most reporters, and perhaps more than some radon researchers! So I hope the piece will come out OK. But I gave him a lot of “on the one hand…, on the other hand…” material, so if he quotes selectively he could make me look extreme in either direction. Not that I think he will, I think he’ll do a good job.
The piece will be on NPR’s Morning Edition tomorrow (Friday), and available on their archives afterwards.