Kudos to Chicago Tribune for Accurate Reporting

Published May 1, 2004

The nation’s major media outlets have been rightfully and often criticized for failing to do their homework regarding the science behind alarmist environmental claims. Over the years, Environment & Climate News has not hesitated to call attention to inaccurate reporting.

We are obliged, then, to note when the press does its homework, as recently occurred at the Chicago Tribune. While the Tribune frequently reports unsubstantiated environmental scares as if they were scientific fact, the newspaper deserves praise for a recent story about nuclear power.

A New York-based environmental activist group, the Radiation and Public Health Project (RPHP), recently released a study about nuclear reactors located in Morris, Illinois, about an hour southwest of Chicago. The group published statistics it claimed were evidence of an alarming epidemic of cancer and infant health problems in the vicinity of Morris’s Dresden 2 and 3 nuclear reactors.

The Tribune asked Tiefu Shen, chief of the Illinois Department of Public Health’s division of epidemiological studies, to examine the claims. Citing Shen’s analysis, the Tribune on February 21 exposed the alarmist claims as a sham.

Reported the Tribune, “A clue that something’s fishy is that the group cherry-picked time frames instead of looking at health statistics over the same period of time. The group examined infant deaths from 1990 to 2000. But it looked at birth defects from 1992 to 2001. For cancer rates, it was 1986 to 1999.”

The Tribune also exposed one of the group’s most eye-catching claims:

“The cancer rate for Grundy County youths (15 years old and younger) nearly quadrupled. The baseline was 1990 to 1994, when there was one instance of cancer recorded. That was compared to 1995 to 2000, when there were six. Adjust for population growth, annualize the rates and voila! The group can claim a 377 percent increase in cancer rates.

“What the group doesn’t mention is the inconvenient fact that Grundy County’s cancer rate for youths 15 and under is lower than the state’s. (Grundy County’s rate was 8.1 cancers per 100,000 people from 1990 to 2000; the state’s was 13.7 per 100,000.)

“A statistician would rightly point out that the smaller the population, the less reliable health statistics will be. Statistically, Grundy County’s cancer rate for youths is indistinguishable from the state’s rate. The key point is that there’s no sign of an unusual amount of cancer among Grundy County youths.”

Sentence by sentence, statistical assertion by statistical assertion, the Tribune debunked RPHP’s anti-nuclear alarmism like a poultry processing machine de-boning a chicken. “Overall, we don’t see a systematic pattern indicating that Grundy County’s health statistics are worse than the state’s,” Shen told the Tribune.

Summarized the Tribune, “Critics only lose credibility by stoking fears with trumped-up statistics purporting to show a link between nuclear plants and illness. The Radiation and Public Health Project’s case is a dud.”

The Tribune has set for itself–and its media colleagues–a high standard to live up to. One hopes it will adhere to its own advice when reporting flavor-of-the-month environmental scares.

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News. His email address is [email protected].