The horror of human suffering caused by the catastrophe in Japan is vicariously traumatic, and only compounded by the fearful prospect of mass radioactivity contamination. News organizations have a pivotal role when reporting such events in both informing and, if appropriate, reassuring a frightened public. In reality, of course, the news industry is always pulled by the influence of market forces and the need to attract more readers or viewers. This overall context can produce some questionable front pages. One example is that from today’s Irish Daily Mail (the Irish-tailored version of the regular Daily Mail). Its headline is as close to Ali G’s “WAR BEGINS (…with a ‘w’)” spoof as I can recall ever seeing in reality.
From a distance the headline screams “MELTDOWN”. This sounds extremely serious. The occurrence of a genuine meltdown at one of Japan’s nuclear facilities could spell (further) disaster for the local population, as well as endangering people who live within the wide radius of its impact. Both the media and the scientific community are engaged in a kind of “meltdown-watch”. International observers are carefully scrutinizing events in Japan, tracking radiation levels, and thinking through the implications of tsunami-level waves on nuclear reactors, in order to determine whether in fact a genuine meltdown (or multiple meltdowns) may be occurring. From a distance, the Irish Daily Mail’s large-type “MELTDOWN” headline would surely suggest to many readers that such fearful events have indeed now been confirmed.
However, after their eyes have been drawn to the cover of the Irish Daily Mail, eagle-eyed readers may then spot the caveat. The “MELTDOWN” headline is actually the last word of a sentence, the beginning of which is presented in a much smaller — and darker — font. The full sentence reads as follows: “Fears of catastrophe grow as Japan races against time to avert…MELTDOWN”. In other words, rather than there actually having been a meltdown, the headline is describing Japan’s efforts to prevent one. Therefore, at the time of the publication of this headline, there was actually no meltdown at all.
Just consider for a moment what’s going on here. In summary, while the at-a-glance headline screams “MELTDOWN“, its actual meaning is “NO MELTDOWN”.
Either the editors are seeking to mislead passers-by from the newsstands in order to sell more papers (a strategy the Irish Daily Mail has used before), or else they are spectacularly incompetent at the very basics of writing even a single-word headline.
There is considerable public anxiety about whether or not a meltdown will occur in Japan. The term “meltdown” is a relatively informal one that lacks an agreed definition in the nuclear power industry. However, perhaps as a result of this vagueness, the term is very emotive. It raises the spectre of previous nuclear accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. While the consequences of a meltdown in Japan can be expected to be dire, the parameters determining its severity are hard to quantify in advance. Some commentators have drawn attention to the fact that meltdowns are not universally cataclysmic, that modern nuclear plants have many features that help mitigate their impact, and that there are many important differences between events in Japan and those at Chernobyl. Indeed, there is some considerable scientific debate as to the true impact on health of the Chernobyl meltdown.
In other words, the issues relating to nuclear meltdowns are very complex. Given the fear and anxiety surrounding events in Japan, such complexity should be communicated with great care, in order that misplaced panic, unnecessary fear, and poorly formed conclusions can be avoided.
When newspapers attempt to attract attention using headline formats that are little more than optical illusions, they insult not only the intelligence of their readers. They also insult the dignity of those whose lives have been devastated or lost in this catastrophe.
Brian Hughes is an academic psychologist and university professor in Galway, Ireland, specialising in stress, health, and the application of psychology to social issues. He writes widely on the psychology of empiricism and of empirically disputable claims, especially as they pertain to science, health, medicine, and politics.