In 1989, Paul Brodeur of The New Yorker published a book called Currents of Death, in which he raised questions about the safety of electrical power lines, and whether they might cause leukemia. Electromagnetic radiation, in Brodeur’s persuasive telling, was potentially a huge threat to human health, and we were swimming in it, drowning in it, pierced through and through with it, and we couldn’t see it or feel it. If it was dangerous, what could we do? Spend untold billions moving or shielding the entire electrical grid, including the wires in the walls of our homes?
The arrival of cell phones led to similar concerns. What were we doing to our brains when we held these little electromagnetic transmitters next to our brains–next to our brains, for god’s sake?
As Christopher Ketcham points out in the February issue of GQ, plenty of studies have now raised questions about the potential hazards of cell phones. He mentions them in his story, running under the headline “Warning: Your Cell Phone May Be Hazardous to Your Health.”
I chose the verb “mention” carefully. Because Ketcham doesn’t tell us much about these studies. In some cases, he refers to them only by the frightening newspaper headlines they generated:
From summer 2006, in the Hamburg Morgenpost: ARE WE TELEPHONING OURSELVES TO DEATH? That fall, in the Danish journal Dagens Medicin:MOBILE PHONES AFFECT THE BRAIN’S METABOLISM. December 2007, from Agence France-Presse: ISRAELI STUDY SAYS REGULAR MOBILE USE INCREASES TUMOUR RISK. January 2008, in London’s Independent: MOBILE PHONE RADIATION WRECKS YOUR SLEEP. September 2008, in Australia’s The Age: SCIENTISTS WARN OF MOBILE PHONE CANCER RISK.
These fighting words certainly catch my attention; this is a clever and effective writer’s trick. But how do we evaluate these headlines? One way would be to make some judgment based on the credibility of the publications. I’ll confess here, in an admission that must be damning and perhaps career-ending for a Tracker like myself, that I do not have the least idea how credible the Hamburg Morgenpost is. Nor the Dagens Medicin.
If Ketcham had told us even a little bit about which studies these headlines referred to, that would have helped. That’s one of the things I found missing in his story. And there were others.
Let me try to skip through some of the things he does say:
- He begins with “an investment banker who was diagnosed with a brain tumor five years ago,” and who “knew four or five people just at my firm who got tumors.”
- In addition to the newspaper headlines, he notes “multiple reports, mostly out of Europe’s premier research institutions, of cell-phone and PDA use being linked to ‘brain aging,’ brain damage, early-onset Alz heimer’s, senility, DNA damage, and even sperm die-offs.”
- He mentions studies by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and another from Sweden.
- He quotes Louis Slesin, perhaps the most prominent activist raising alarms about the potential dangers of electromagnetic radiation. (Slesin is a reasonable guy; I’ve interviewed him. But he doesn’t do research; he sounds alarms.)
- Ketcham then takes us back to 1960, to talk about research raising questions about the safety of radar, and follows that research for a couple of decades or so.
- He does provide some detail on more current studies, including ones raising questions about whether the radiation might affect the blood-brain barrier or the structure of DNA.
- He talks about how industry has flexed its muscle to suppress information about potential harm from electromagnetic radiation, comparing that to similar efforts by Big Tobacco and the asbestos industry.
- He raises questions about the safety of wireless Internet connections, such as the one I’m using at Starbuck’s right now.
- And he ends with quotes from Slesin and the radar researcher.
That’s a lot. But here’s some of what Ketcham doesn’t tell us:
- We don’t hear any details from anyone about studies acquitting microwave radiation of any bad behavior. Is there nobody in academia or anywhere who has done research that wasn’t suppressed by industry? Scientific American published a reassuring story in December. Ketcham might have grounds for criticizing it, but he didn’t even address it.
- We don’t hear from any medical expert about whether the brain tumor described in the lede could be caused by cell phones. The expert Ketcham quotes is the poor guy with the tumor, who deserves our sympathy, but who makes no claim to know anything about brain tumors.
- He doesn’t give us enough detail on any of the research to come to any conclusions about how legitimate–or illegitimate–it might be. We see no dissection of industry studies, showing us how they are flawed.
- He piles on. The article is about cell phones, the headline and the opening grafs tells us, but then cell phones are indicted in part by alleging that radar and wi-fi networks are also risky. If the problem with cell phones is, as Ketcham writes, that they are “tiny, low-power microwave ovens, without walls, that we hold against the sides of our heads,” then that wouldn’t be the same problem we have with wi-fi or radar, unless we were to lift a radar array or wireless router to our heads. This is guilt by association.
Ketcham makes no effort to lay out the case, the arguments for and against, and to let readers decide what they think. Even if he made up his mind what he thinks before he started writing–a perfectly reasonable thing for a writer to do when writing a piece with a point of view–he weakens his own case by not bringing us in and letting us follow the argument. He merely tells us, over and over again, in different ways and using different examples, that radiation is bad for us.
I know you’re wondering right now whether I have a point of view. As somebody who covered studies on the possible hazards of electromagnetic radiation at the AP in the 1980s and 1990s, I came to the conclusion that there might be something here, perhaps something worthy of more study. I found the evidence far from conclusive that microwaves posed a risk, but I couldn’t entirely dismiss it, either.
The best investigative reporting should carefully lead readers through complicated material, clarifying and explaining as the journey continues, until everybody, writer and readers alike, can come out the other end with some information and understanding, enough to come to some kind of conclusion.
Ketcham doesn’t do that for us. This is the kind of poor investigative reporting in which the writer earns the label “investigative” by taking a strong, usually contrary, point of view, and excluding anything that doesn’t fit the argument. If Ketcham didn’t know better, his editors should have.
I led with Paul Brodeur’s reporting 20 years ago to make that point that this story has been around for a long time. If a reporter wants to revisit the story now, he or she cannot merely sound the alarm. That’s been done many times. We need much more than that now. We need insight, clarity, and some balanced reporting–even in the most controversial investigative stories. Especially in the most controversial stories.
– Paul Raeburn