Monday, September 12, 2011

Accident Inspires Incorrect Headline, Incorrect Juxtaposition

An explosion that killed one worker and injured three or four others at a French nuclear waste treatment site is inspiring headline writers all over the mass media to write incorrect headlines that blow the accident out of proportion.

The stories do generally a better job of explaining what occurred at the Centraco site Monday, but the fuzzy use of the pejorative “nuke plant” in the headlines is misleading readers and likely fueling fears of another Fukushima-style disaster, rather than what has actually happened.

The Associated Press headline (shown here at, but Google searches show the “nuke plant” shorthand is being used legion elsewhere, so my assumption is the headline comes from the AP) screams “1 Dead, 4 Hurt in Blast at French Nuke Plant.” Where a photo accompanies the story, more often than not it’s of your typical nuclear power plant’s cooling towers.

I understand what’s going on here – it’s all due to shorthand. “Nuke plant” is shorter than “waste facility” or even “waste plant,” and conjures up a more concrete image – who cares if there’s an explosion at a French landfill, for instance. Throwing in the cooling tower photo makes the nuclear connection even more clear. Unfortunately, this kind of shorthand, as easy as it is in conjuring up pictures in the minds of readers, is inaccurate. Only by reading the story do readers understand – and then, only in a klunky fashion – what has occurred. And in this age of Twitter and instant praise/condemnation based on as few words (and facts) as possible, saying an explosion and death occurred at a “nuke plant” is going to get more attention and more negative reactions toward nuclear power, even though the accident did not, as a point of fact, occur at a nuclear power plant. (That it occurred in the mere vicinity of a nuclear power plant (experimental ones at that) is even more exciting to the fearmongers.)

Reuters – which in general does a lot better at technical and science reporting than the AP – does a better job with its headline, “Blast at French nuclear site kills one, no leaks” shown here., too, does a fair job at reporting the facts without exaggeration.

It’s fair to include nuclear in both headlines, of course. But the image of a “plant” versus a “site” in many minds conjures up power plants, which in turn conjures up images of Fukushima and Chernobyl and Three Mile Island and C. Montgomery Burns buying another $1,000 ivory-handled backscratcher.

Why is this such a big deal to me? Well, I work at an American site that is processing nuclear waste. If an explosion occurred here and the news were saying it was at a “nuke plant” there’s be a lot of howling at the press in my work neighborhood. It appears the explosion occurred in an oven being used to melt metallic low-level waste, which is less dangerous than the stuff being processed where I work. (Per World Nuclear News and the American Nuclear Society, the furnace that exploded was being used to melt scrap metal, pumps, tools, etc., lightly contaminated with short-lived and low-level radioactivity) So again, the headline – and the images being used with this story in some places -- do not fit with reality.

No comments: