Head case study

When there really is a wolf - a genuine health risk - it will be lost in the dangerous noise-pollution of unfounded scaremongering. Careless talk costs lives.



Motherhood in Western Europe

Insights from Western European Mothers

The changing face of motherhood — Western Europe

The accompanying reports combine a review of existing literature with an analysis of original quantitative data derived from a poll of 9,582 mothers from 12 countries in Western Europe, making it one of the largest studies of this kind ever conducted

Child Obesity and Health

An analysis of the latest available data from the Health Survey for England (HSE)

Child Obesity and Health — download the full report in pdf format

In this ‘National Childhood Obesity Week’, the SIRC report, Children, obesity and heath: Recent trends, holds up a true mirror, accurately reflecting the trend towards slimmer, healthier children. more

The Future of Freemasonry

An examination of the role of Freemasonry in the 21st century


This report is, as far as we know, an account of the first ever study that has been commissioned by Freemasons from a non-Masonic body. None of the SIRC members involved in the project are Freemasons, a fact that evoked surprise and welcome in equal measure from the Lodge members we met. more

The Changing Face of Motherhood

Insights from three generations of mothers


The report seeks to answer some specific questions about the changing face of motherhood and determine the extent to which modern ‘solutions’ to motherhood are more or less beneficial than the solutions of the past. more

Head case study

The reporting of the latest mobile phone scare provides an interesting case-study in media coverage of health and science issues. On 4 April 2000, all of the main national newspapers dutifully covered the Consumer Association report claiming that hands-free mobile earpiece kits increase the amount of radiation channelled into the user's head. More detailed comparison of the news items, however, reveals different approaches to communication about health risks.

The SIRC/Royal Institution Code of Practice recommends that any caveats, such as the fact that there is no reliable evidence of any risk to health, should be clearly stated very early in any article – preferably within the first two paragraphs – and that where a claim is unproven, headline-writers should indicate this by using qualifiers or at least putting the controversial claim in quotation marks. None of the papers followed the first of these guidelines to the letter, although the Guardian came very close by devoting the third and fourth paragraphs to doubts about the harmful effects of mobiles. The Guardian also used a less alarmist headline than the other papers, gave more detailed information and adopted a more rational, scientific tone – their health correspondent Sarah Boseley wins today's SIRC 'Naming and Praising' award for this. The Telegraph's report is not quite as informative, but also relatively calm and reasonable.

The Sun, on the other hand, is bottom of today's league table, with a totally unqualified scaremongering headline and not a single mention of any problems with the evidence on mobile phone risks. The Mail subjects readers to a staggering 26 paragraphs of unproven scares about mobiles before grudgingly acknowledging, in the final line on page four, that there is no firm evidence of any risk. The Express (whose web site incidentally carries advertisements for mobile phones alongside its frequent scare-stories on this subject) is not much better, with an unqualified headline and no mention of caveats until the sixth paragraph. The Times and The Independent are slightly more responsible, putting the Consumer Association claims in quotes in their headlines. The Times mentions lack of evidence of risk in the fifth paragraph, and expands on this in the seventh. The Independent, however, adopts the traditional scare-story approach of leaving all such caveats to the final paragraph. The Mirror reports the story in a much more responsible manner, with appropriate quotation marks in the headline, the qualifier 'claims' in the first sentence, and caveats in both the third and final paragraphs – reminding us that the so-called 'quality' broadsheets can often be less thoughtful and rational than their tabloid rivals.

The scientific status of a report in a consumer magazine, not subject to peer review or any other control, was of course not questioned by any of the papers. Now did any paper seem to consider the 'crying-wolf effect' of constantly bombarding the public with highly dubious, unproven health scares, such that, as our own research has shown, the majority are now suffering from 'warning-fatigue' and have ceased to pay any attention. When there really is a wolf – a genuine health risk – it will be lost in the dangerous noise-pollution of unfounded scaremongering. Careless talk costs lives.