News

Wall Street Journal trumpets "explosive finding" on cell phones and cancer

Online early on 27 May, too late for that day's newspaper, the Wall Street Journal posted the article "Cellphone-cancer link found in government study: Multiyear, peer-reviewed study found 'low incidences' of two types of tumors in male rats exposed to type of radio frequencies commonly emitted by cellphones."

Whatever the actual biophysical realities, news editors and reporters like to run stories about possible cell-phone dangers. By midmorning, the story had begun to spread—often with the effect of unnecessarily spreading outright alarm.

A few news reports, grounded in the wider scientific literature, have questioned the hype. Recently, a widely publicized, three-decade-long Australian study, reported in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, exemplified that extensive literature. It declared, "We found no increase in brain cancer incidence compatible with the steep increase in mobile phone use."

Most reports have sought a moderate balance between that well-established understanding and this new rat-tumor news. But a question arises about that balance: Is it a false equivalence? That is, does it represent the journalistic practice of conferring a factually unmerited appearance of balance? That's what would happen if a reporter presented anti-vaccine protesters' view as a possibly legitimate alternative to settled vaccine science. As this overall cell-phone story develops, you can see the journalism profession wrestling with the false-equivalence question.