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News coverage of statistical issues…how did I do?

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.

3 Comments

  1. ChristianK says:

    In science you solve the problem with peer review. Journalists should simply show their finished article to experts in a similar fashion.
    Quoting experts isn't enough.

  2. zbicyclist says:

    I heard the piece while in the shower and it seemed well done. I particularly liked the notion that if you are in southern LA testing was a waste of money, but in the midwest it's worth it. I hadn't read your blog post at that time.

  3. Phil says:

    The transcript and audio are here in the NPR archives. The reporter used a couple of my quotes to make the points that (1) radon risk for nonsmokers is much lower than for smokers, and (2) radon risk in some areas of the country is much lower than in others. Those would both tend to make people less likely to test their homes for radon.

    I had also said some things that might encourage people to test (such as emphasizing that a small percentage of homes in the country expose people to more radiation than they would receive if they were uranium miners).

    Basically, the reporter used my quotes to illustrate some of the nuances of the radon issue and to imply that some government messages exaggerate the risk to most people, and he used quotes from another radon researcher (Bill Field of University of Iowa, whom I suggested he talk to) to suggest that radon really is dangerous and people should take it seriously.

    Overall I think the story came out pretty well, although it would have been nice if they'd found an extra 10 seconds to tell people how to find out if they live in a high-radon area. But I guess people can Google that.

    I'm expecting to get an earful from the radon mitigation community, who I'm sure won't like the angle of my quoted comments. But the story as a whole was pretty well balanced, and I certainly stand behind my quotes, so I think the reporter did a good job.