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July 12, 2019, 7:39 a.m.
Audience & Social

Nuclear disasters, information vacuums: How a lack of data in Fukushima led to the spread of fake health news

Plus: All the media literacy resources, and giving parents information about the flu vaccine.

The growing stream of reporting on and data about fake news, misinformation, partisan content, and news literacy is hard to keep up with. This weekly roundup offers the highlights of what you might have missed.

“They did not have accurate information about the disease incidence.” Last fall, a city council member in Minamisoma City, Japan circulated a printed leaflet among residents of the community, near where the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster happened in 2011. (It was the first nuclear disaster to occur since the internet became widely available.) The pamphlet reported that rates of thyroid cancer and leukemia increased dramatically after the accident. But, researchers from Minimisoma write in QJM: An International Journal of Medicine this month, the data was incorrect. It was created…

…using biased interpretation of health insurance claims data in the Minamisoma Municipal General Hospital, a core medical institution in the city. Such data are often inaccurate and should not be used to calculate cancer incidence, because the database shows only the roughly cumulative numbers of diseases in a hospital. In this case, there was only one incidence of thyroid cancer in 2010 before the FDNPP incident, and this number progressed to 29 in 2017 even though there were only four newly diagnosed thyroid cancer cases in the hospital in 2017. Therefore, the “29 times higher incidence of thyroid cancer” indicated by these data is a biased interpretation.

Surprisingly, a city council member started distributing this information. In addition to distribution to citizens, this information drew national attention via social networking services and the Internet. To make matters worse, the local government did little to stop the council member from spreading such misleading information since they did not have accurate information about the disease incidence.

Part of the problem, the researchers note, was that good data was actually not available. “The biggest reason for the spread of such misleading information was insufficient accumulation of fundamental disease databases after the FDNPP incident,” they write. “To date, there are no cohort data regarding incidence and prevalence of cancer and noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) among those affected by the FDNPP incident.” People also don’t know a lot about radiation, and two years ago, “bullying toward evacuated children associated with stigma around radiation after the FDNPP incident became a social problem in Japan.”

A separate Fukushima study, published earlier this year, looked at anxiety:

A mail survey was conducted in August 2016 among 2000 residents of Fukushima Prefecture aged 20 to 79 years. Survey items included questions about current health anxieties caused by radiation, trusted sources of information about radiation, and media used to obtain information on radiation. The survey valid response rate was 43.4%. Results of multiple linear regression analysis revealed that anxiety was significantly higher for the groups indicating “trust in citizen groups” and “use of internet sites.” Anxiety was significantly lower for the groups indicating “trust in government ministries,” “trust in local government,” and “use of local broadcast television.” Also anxiety was significantly lower for groups with higher health literacy.

Ultimately, the researchers call for more data to be collected, and more information to be made available to citizens: The information vacuum created in its absence is dangerous.

Media literacy shouldn’t be a “special treat.” A new report from RAND looks at various U.S. media literacy efforts, with media literacy being defined as an attempt to “help people become more discerning about the content that they consume, create, and share through various media platforms.”

As part of the report, RAND created a database of 50 U.S.-based media literacy resources, which is available for download as an Excel file here and consists of “[media literacy] curricula, lesson plans, activities, webinars, videos, and games.” They found that the majority of resources are targeted at K-12 students “and, to a lesser extent, college and university students. There are fewer programs targeted at educators, parents, and the general public.” About half the programs were online, more than half were free, and the most common topic covered was evaluating source credibility:

The researchers also reviewed existing research on media literacy, but note that the study of the field remains limited: “There is little causal, evaluative research in the [media literacy] field that isolates the effects of ML interventions. Furthermore, the studies we reviewed varied widely in how they defined and measured ML competencies. As a result, we are not confident in drawing definitive conclusions from past research, such as what kinds of ML practices work and under what conditions. Still, it is useful to summarize the research that does exist and what we can learn from it.”

And RAND did in-person interviews with 12 experts. Here are some excerpts from those interviews:

ML needs to be larger than the digital. The digital is an important space, it’s a place where change is happening, but […] I don’t think you can understand the digital as an abstraction from so-called legacy media or mass media; we need to have access to all the tools and all the media, the whole media system.

One of the problems in all of this, which I’d put in the category of pointless turf battles, is people using different expressions for these literacies, and fighting for the funding which has been quite limited. […] That’s reality. And I think that people are starting to realize that instead of fighting over the money, we should be working together.

I think what you want is a paradigm shift where media literacy skills are incorporated across the entire disciplines, all of the disciplines in the school day, integrating it into how we teach the core subjects, so the social science teacher takes ownership of some skills, the science teacher takes ownership of other skills and throughout the school day it simply becomes part of how people think about the world around them in an integrated way rather than one more thing the schools have to do in addition to all the other subjects they already teach.

We teach that not all information is created equal and that some of it is more credible and trustworthy than others. We don’t tell them what [the credible information] is or where to find it, we want them to locate it. But I think there are some programs that basically teach that everything is driven by bias and that it’s just a matter of figuring out what that bias is…

We are making the point that this is what they should be looking for, for these standards, and giving them the tools to make those judgments, to find what is credible, not to feel that there’s nothing credible.

If [media literacy education] is a special treat for students at the end of the week or it’s treated as an elective [… then] media literacy is not going to have the impact it needs to have. I think what you want is a paradigm shift where media literacy skills are incorporated across all of the disciplines in the school day — integrating it into how we teach the core subjects, so throughout the school day it simply becomes part of how people think about the world around them in an integrated way.

“An inexpensive, simple pamphlet.” Researchers at Columbia found that parents who received information about the flu shot at their pediatrician’s office were more likely to get their kids that vaccine than those who didn’t:

The study included 400 parent-and-child pairs at pediatric clinics in northern Manhattan. The parents answered a brief questionnaire to assess their attitudes toward the flu shot and their intent to vaccinate. One-third received a one-page handout with local information about the flu, another third received a one-page handout with national information about the flu, and the rest received usual care (no handout). Both handouts emphasized the risk of getting the flu, the seriousness of the disease, and vaccine effectiveness. Providers were unaware of the parents’ study participation.

The researchers found that nearly 72% of children whose parents were given either fact sheet were vaccinated before the end of the season compared to around 65% of those who received usual care.

Parents who received the national handout were more likely to have their child vaccinated on the day of the clinic visit (59%) compared to those who didn’t receive either handout (53%).

Parents who had fewer concerns about vaccination were more likely to vaccinate their children by the end of the season (74% versus 59% of parents with significant concerns) and on the day of the clinic visit (59% and 45%, respectively). Approximately 90% of parents who said they planned to vaccinate their children did so by the end of the flu season.

Illustration from L.M. Glackens’ The Yellow Press (1910) via The Public Domain Review.

Laura Hazard Owen is the editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email ( or Twitter DM (@laurahazardowen).
POSTED     July 12, 2019, 7:39 a.m.
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