Debunked by a growing chorus of experts, The Tennessean’s ballyhooed series about a “mysterious pattern of illness” afflicting people around nuclear facilities is apparently nothing more than a reporters’ snipe hunt organized by prize-hungry editors.
“What’s wrong with science and health reporting?” asked the Statistical Assessment Service (STATS), a Washington, D.C.-based research group that focuses on media misuse of statistics. “For a quick inventory of some common journalistic shortcomings and scientific carelessness,” STATS recommended The Tennessean’s eight-page “Special Report,” published Sept. 29, describing the unrelated symptoms of 410 sick people living in or around nuclear facilities in 11 states.
“Four hundred people is a lot of people,” said one expert quoted in the series.
“Indeed it is,” responded STATS in its monthly newsletter, “being more than 300 but not as many as 500. But since the population within a 50-mile radius of the respective [nuclear] facilities totals over 4 million...how many illnesses should we expect?”
Tennessean reporters Susan Thomas and Laura Frank interviewed a “convenience sample” of “self-selected or referred individuals,” according to STATS. The patients’ symptoms, which included everything from heart attacks and mental retardation to anxiety and “abnormally large tonsils,” represented “no recognized diagnostic classification,” STATS concluded. “Instead, they are a polyglot miscellany.”
“What’s the disease?” echoed Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of Vanderbilt’s Department of Preventive Medicine and one of the region’s top public health experts. “And where is the pattern? There is no pattern.”
STATS found “especially troublesome” The Tennessean’s attempt to link these unexplained illnesses to nuclear facilities. The paper’s report “is organized around the fallacy” that “a person with an unexplained illness who lives near a church has simply got an unexplained illness, whereas the same illness in the vicinity of a nuclear facility must be caused by the facility.”
Schaffner, an epidemiologist, agreed. “Unexplained, nonspecific symptoms are rather common,” he said. “You could stand in The Tennessean newsroom and throw a dart at a map and find in any community people who are not feeling well in an unspecified way. It’s the human condition. But you can’t impute causality [to the nuclear facilities] without assuming that public health officials are either engaged in a conspiracy or are so ineffectual that they haven’t noticed what these reporters believe they have uncovered.” Either assumption, he said, would be wrong and irresponsible.
Last Thursday, The Wall Street Journal added its considerable weight to the arguments of The Tennessean’s critics, publishing a guest column by “science journalist” Michael Fumento under the headline, “Newspaper Invents Nuclear Health Scare.” Fumento ridiculed The Tennessean’s series for blaming “anything and everything” connected with the nation’s nuclear plants for causing not-so-mysterious illnesses like hypertension and heart disease. “In fact,” Fumento wrote, “the answer to this ‘mystery’ is simple. Any group of people will have a certain amount of sickness.” A comparable number of sick people could be found in any “tall Manhattan apartment building.”
The Tennessean has neither reprinted Fumento’s column, nor fairly described it. Instead, media reporter John Shiffman wrote a story Friday dismissing Fumento as a “former Reagan administration political appointee” and devoting more space to editor Frank Sutherland’s response than to Fumento’s criticisms. According to Shiffman, Sutherland now claims that the point of the series was to show that “a great number of people” living near nuclear plants exhibit “disturbing signs of illness.” The editor seems to be backing away from the series’ main charge that there is a “mysterious pattern of illness” among people living near nuclear facilities.
Frank and Thomas wrote they were only acting “as journalists, not scientists” in collecting anecdotal evidence from sick people. “Of course this wasn’t a scientific study,” Sutherland told Shiffman. But those excuses hardly explain why the paper published dozens of stories implying that a “mysterious pattern of illness” could be linked to nuclear plants without any apparent evidence that there is either an identifiable “illness” or a quantifiable “pattern.”
The Tennessean has invested substantial resources over the last year in gathering and reporting this story primarily, one suspects, in the hope of winning journalism awards. But as criticism of the current series grows, it’s now clear that the fundamental premise of the September “Special Report” rests on assumptions for which there is, seemingly, no support.
What isn’t so clear is how the paper’s editor allowed this embarrassing episode to occur and what the editor’s bosses at Gannett headquarters in Arlington intend to do about it.
Editor’s note: On deadline, Frank Sutherland e-mailed the Scene a lengthy rebuttal of the Journal column and answered several of Walker’s questions. The Scene will report on his responses next week.
Shhh . . .
Don’t tell Bud Adams, but his aren’t the first Titans in Tennessee. High officials in the original Ku Klux Klan, founded in Pulaski in 1866, were called “Grand Titans.” Each Titan presided over Klan activity within his “Dominion,” a group of counties roughly corresponding to congressional districts.
What will the mascot wear?