by Howard Fienberg
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 Maladys 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 Veterans 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 Radios 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.
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