A political cartoon in Sunday's Times-Standard showed Snow White looking askance at an old woman who offers her an apple. "Is it from Japan?," she asks. It was one of two cartoons on the topic of radiated food in the four-set on the Sunday opinion page.
It's the top story in my head these days. When I gather with friends, families or students, it seems to keep coming up at some point in our conversation. Has the radiation from Japan reached us? Is it in our food? Are we breathing it even as we avoid second-hand smoke? But our newspapers don't seem to give the issue the same level of importance. I went through every Times-Standard since the March 11 tsunami. I found a story that said testing found no threat along the West Coast; a brief that mentioned radiation traces found in Hawaii; a story that said fears that our nuclear plants are at risk are unwarranted; a story about a hunt for better radiation care; and a story about how we shouldn't worry about trace amounts of radiation in our milk.
I'm not the only one worried. The milk story accounted for the most page hits all last week on SFgate.com, the website for the San Francisco Chronicle. And that was in a week of heavy news competition: Barry Bonds is in trial down there and Britney Spears performed in the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium.
I really began worrying after reading a letter to the editor in last week's North Coast Journal from John Hardin of Redway. "Once ingested in food or water, radioactive metals tend to accumulate in the kidneys where neutron bombardment causes cancer, and the materials from kidney stones... . Depending on the half-life of the radioactive materials involved, the material can remain highly radioactive for a few months or up to tens of thousands of years."
Now, the Journal didn't tell me what citizen Hardin's credentials are so I don't know how knowledgeable he is about nuclear radiation, but it sure sounded like he knew what he was talking about.
Now, I'm not so worried for myself. I've since read that CT Scans will give you more radiation than what will travel here from Japan, and doctors bombarded me with so many CT Scans seven years ago when they treated me for cancer I'm sure it will end up killing me in the end. But that experience was so awful I am trying hard to keep my kid cancer free -- we eat pesticide-free produce and slather her in SPF 70 cream. Not one bite of mercury-laden tuna will pass her lips.
But radiation in milk? How can we avoid that? Meanwhile, what about our fish? We can stop the imports of ramen noodles and Kobe beef, but can we ask the fish we net where they came from? Anyone who has read Gentle Ben knows that Sockeye spawn in our rivers but travel to Japan and Russia before coming back home. Are we looking at a new type of Frankenfish?
When I got out of grad school I interviewed for a job at a Jacksonville paper. It had a daily odor-o-meter; the paper kept track of the stinky air caused by a local paper mill. I'd like to see a daily radiation tally, based on data collected by some believable organization. We periodically test our bay water for dioxin. I'd like to see the tests now for radiation. I don't trust the data the Japanese government releases.
This story or lack of it is another case of the giant disconnect between news organizations and news consumers. The news organizations don't give us what we want to read and then wonder why we don't read newspapers. Meanwhile I've read story after story about fears of radiation from smart meters. Does anyone remember the fears raised back in 2005 over the issue of fluoride in our drinking water? For those of you who don't believe government officials who say fluoride is safe, how many of you accept the assurances coming down on the nuclear radiation issue?
Neither the government nor our news organizations want us to panic. And I do believe that there is no point in raising fears in news stories if you can't offer solutions. But in the face of little to no believable information, people will tend to believe the worst. An absence of information will not prevent panic. Any teenager will tell you that when an adult says "Don't worry," that's when you need to worry.
So offer us data we can believe. Don't try to minimize the damage we read into it. Instead connect us to experts who can tell us how to further minimize the damage you say is minimal, especially in what we feed our kids. Give me one radiation-free meal that my daughter will eat. She'd be happy eating a Rita's burrito every day. My brother ate nothing but McDonald's hamburgers for about a decade before he turned into a vegetarian.
What's missing in the coverage of the radiation leakage out of Japan are follow-up questions. Sure the radiation found in apples and milk is so much less than an X-ray. But how many X-rays do most people get? Some people eat an apple each day to keep the doctor away. Can they do that and keep the oncologist at bay?
Marcy Burstiner is an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State University. She looks forward to working with Journal Acting Editor Ryan Burns and hopes she won't have to keep welcoming any more new editors. She is loving former editor Hank Sims' new news blog. You can find the Lost Coast Outpost at lostcoastoutpost.com.