Science, cellular radiation and media coverage: manipulating public perception

Last month the American National Toxicology Program (NTP) released two new draft studies reviewing the long-term effects of exposure to cellphone radiation. The studies received extensive media coverage worldwide with every media outlet choosing to present the results of the study from a different perspective. Such coverage has a great influence on public perception of the subject, as will be elaborated later on.

The NTP studies examined about 3,000 rodents whose health was monitored from in-utero to two years after their birth. The group exposed to the highest RF levels had tumors in the tissue surrounding nerves in the heart. Peculiarly the result appeared in male rats but not in females or in mice. The reports also point out that it is unclear if the appearance of tumors were related to RF.

These results were showcased in several different ways in the media, a key player in the process of shaping public opinion. People today lack time and interest in dwelving deeper into such studies, a fact which only reinforces the power of headlines in shaping the initial opinion of the individual and the public perception as a whole. Quite a few media outlets chose to present the research findings in a way that amplifies public fear and emphasizes the risk to their lives. Some did so explicitly, while others were covert in their phrasing, manipulating the message through imagery. The following are some prominent examples of leading media outlets’ headlines:

NY Times: Cancer Risk From Cellphone Radiation Is Small, Studies Show 

Thedailystar:Do cell phones cause cancer?
YAHOO: Government Study Suggests Cell Phones May Cause Cancer in Rats
Newshub: US National Toxicology Programme finds link between cellphone radiation and tumours
TheGuardian: Cell phone radiation linked to cancer in rats in first-ever large U.S. government-funded study

Many studies have shown that when a seemingly positive message is conveyed to the public whilst containing negative words, the impression left on the public perception will be mostly negative-  as shown by The New York Post’s headline. At a first glance it’s reassuring, but a phrasing which includes a combination of words like “cell phone”, “radiation” and “kill you” will probably have the opposite effect on the reader:

Therefore it’s nearly impossible for the media to cover such a topic without raising public concern. An example of one media outlet that managed to do so is CNN:

CNN: Cell phone radiation study finds more questions than answers

And how was the study presented in Israel? Haaretz newspaper, which covered the story, mentioned in the headline the low risk, yet also combined it with words like “get cancer” and “cellular radiation”- a move that will probably leave a negative impression on the reader:

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