Self-Inflicted Wounds?

by Howard Fienberg
November 1999

Reporters often have trouble translating guarded scientific statements into the declarative language of headlines. It is all too easy to exaggerate a cautious mention of possible correlation into a case of cast-iron causation. Just such overstatement marred the coverage of an October 19 report from the Rand corporation, which investigated allegations of a link between the drug pyridostigmine bromide (PB) and “Gulf War illnesses.”

The Los Angeles Times headlined, “Gulf War Malady’s Link to Nerve Gas Antidote Suspected.” CBS Evening News claimed that “after years of denial, the US Department of Defense has reversed itself, and now says it can identify a possible cause for Gulf War syndrome.” And The New York Times headlined, “Drug May Be Cause of Veteran’s Illnesses: Pentagon Survey Links Gulf War Syndrome to Nerve-Gas Antidote.”

Actually, the study did not “suggest,” “suspect,” or “link” PB as a causal agent. In fact, the researcher said that while not “necessarily a causal factor,” the possibility of PB leading to lingering symptoms many years after exposure “cannot be dismissed.” Being unable to dismiss a possibility or correlation differs substantially from “suggesting,” “suspecting” or “linking.”

Some outlets did manage the right tone from the start. The Washington Post and National Public Radio’s All Things Considered emphasized in their reports that PB simply “cannot be ruled out” as a possible cause of some of the illnesses.

CBS This Morning posited that the study showed the military suffering from “self-inflicted wounds.” It may be tempting to envision a peripheral clue as a smoking gun to liven up a news item. In this case, though, some news outlets may have shot themselves in the feet.

return to Howard Fienberg's page