Catalyst’s tabloid science journalism?

catalysttwitterIt has long been a truism of newspaper publishing that you can say something in a headline that everyone will see and then retract it in a story on page 2 which no one will notice. It is this context that makes the ABC’s Catalyst’s decision to run titillating advertising on a story about WiFi causing cancer concerning.

“Wi-Fried? Could wifi-enabled devices be harmful to our health? A growing number of scientists are concerned that the widespread use of wifi and wifi-enabled devices could be slowly making us sick. Dr. Matyanne Demasi takes a closer look at the link between mobile phones and brain cancer and explores whether our wireless devices could be putting our health at risk.”

The text and attached promotional video clearly imply that there might be a danger; cue man in suit saying: “If you can’t say it’s safe, then you’d be cautious about how you use it.” Catalyst’s own Twitter advertising says: “Free Wi-Fi, too good to be true? #ABCCatalyst looks at the health risks associated with Wi-Fi Tuesday 8:00pm.” That’s clearly saying, or strongly implying, that health risks exist.

See, while there’s nothing to click on, it’s definitely conceptual click-bait. There’s the low-hanging question and the underlying implication that there must be some truth behind it or they wouldn’t be bothering to publish the story. We’ve fallen into the habit of thinking it’s OK to lead with the titillating edge and then sort out reality later. That’s unedifying in entertainment journalism, but unacceptable in science journalism.

So the Twitter-feed has been alight with scientists deeply disturbed by the nation’s flagship science program promoting ‘pseudo-science’ on any level. I make no claim to know what Catalyst will conclude beyond what’s implied in their advertising.  As far as I can see most established science says that WiFi is safe unless, possibly, being used in close proximity by children – and certainly the reaction of actual scientists that I’ve seen seems to confirm that as the established view. But that doesn’t entirely matter, to a large degree the harm is done: The advertising carries the message, what the program says may be the page 2 retraction. Of course it’ll be even worse if the actual program doesn’t have something new to say.

Unless Catalyst has strong new evidence of real dangers from WiFi, what they’re undertaking is simply the scientific equivalent of tabloid journalism and beneath the country’s flagship science program.

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