Friday, November 26, 2010

Da Biz: News Nonprofits Hurting

Remember a year ago when everyone was predicting the imminent death of print media? The gloomy forecasts were made not least by newspaper moguls themselves (often looking for government handouts). Turns out the dailies are doing just fine now that the economy's back, while the bell is already tolling for many of the online nonprofit news sites that were supposed to take over the dailies' market. Many are closing, while withering competition is coming from the likes of Yahoo, which is expanding localized news coverage. Meanwhile, many of the few remaining nonprofits survive only because they are propped up by single rich families, as this interesting overview explains.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Tools: 2010 Online Hack Gift Guide

What kind of gift to get your online journalist friends? The Online Journalism Review has all the answers in its 2010 holiday gift guide. From smart phone to computer and still camera, the OJR has your buddy covered. Yeah, I know - do you really need all that sh@*? Frankly, I'm skeptical. It's basically tech porn, and I don't have any of that junk myself. But then again, I sit in my office all day in my slippers and rarely have to go anywhere, so what do I know! :)

Books: Whistleblower Details PR Campaign to Discredit Sicko

After Michael Moore came out with his film indicting the health industry, Sicko, the U.S. insurance biz was scared. Real scared. It developed a "very, very sophisticated" PR campaign to discredit Moore as a "Marxist" out to destroy the American Dream, says insurance whistleblower Wendell Potter, who played a key role in the efforts to attack the film. The campaign included sponsoring a front group supposedly representing consumers, which uncritical journalists quoted speaking out against Moore without reporting that the group was largely funded by health insurers.
Potter later became disillusioned and has written a book, Deadly Spin: An Insurance Company Insider Speaks out on How Corporate PR is Killing Health Care and Deceiving Americans. Read Potter's interview with Democracy Now's Amy Goodman here.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Investigations: Dentists Using More High-Radiation Devices

While doctors have mounted campaigns to limit radiation use on children and adolescents, dentists are going in the opposite direction, reports this New York Times investigation. Not only do most dentists still use outmoded X-ray equipment; they are also increasingly using devices called cone-beam CT scanners that emit hundreds of times more radiation than an airport scanner. They provide 3-D images of teeth and the skull and are widely used when kids get braces.

The device's makers often market the product with the help of dentists paid or sponsored by the companies, who the Times says have peddled misleading information.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Investigations: Who Killed Lebanon's Rafik Hariri?

Interesting CBC-TV investigation here on the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Tools: Blogger's Guide for Libel

So you've had a threatening legal letter over a blog post. What do you do? This interesting pamphlet from the UK group Sense About Science, which advocates for libel reform, gives some good tips. It applies to the UK, but some of the info could be instructive for bloggers elsewhere, especially in Commonwealth countries that might share Britain's difficult legal climate. Be sure to check the legislation and case law in your own country.

Books: Activists and Files Tell Story of FBI-Led "Surveillance Society"

Read the story of the FBI's intelligence activities on U.S. political activists in a new book that looks at the spying through the eyes of people under surveillance. The Dangers of Dissent: The FBI and Civil Liberties Since 1965 relies on first-hand accounts and government documents obtained through FOI requests and litigation to tell the tale of the new U.S. "surveillance society."

Books: New FOI Legal Guide

FOI users in the U.S. will be interested in a new book from the Electronic Privacy Information Center: Litigation Under the Federal Open Government Laws, 2010. Highly useful guide for FOI-using journalists and litigators.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Investigations: Staff Blows Whistle on Whistle-Blower Protection Commish

Big kerfuffle over the sudden retirement of Canada's whistle-blower protection commissioner Christiane Ouimet amid an investigation of her office by Auditor General Sheila Fraser. Ouimet was apparently embroiled in an internal staff revolt after she found not one case of wrongdoing or reprisal in the entire 400,000-member federal civil service during her three years in office. I reported on complaints about Ouimet's office in this Montreal Gazette story in August.
The end for Ouimet came when her own staff finally blew the whistle on her. They complained about the working environment in her office and the lack of proactive investigations of whistle-blower complaints. Eighteen of 22 employees in her office quit in the past year, according to one report. Read more in this CBC item.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Da Biz: Why UK Investigative Journalism is on the Ropes

The woes of investigative journalism in the UK are explored in this interesting piece in The Independent. The issues will be familiar to sluggos in other countries.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Da Biz: "Journalism in the Crucible"

An interesting series of articles here from the American Journalism Review titled "Journalism in the Crucible" exploring the future of journalism and the rise of nonprofits doing investigative reporting.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Investigations: Drug Prohibition Leads to More Violence, Crime... and Drugs

Does the war on drugs work? Does it actually reduce drug-related social problems? Not so according to a comprehensive study from the Vancouver-based International Centre for Science in Drug Policy. In fact, police crackdowns lead to more drug-related violence, drug offences and homicides, according to this study that the centre released in April.
The centre reviewed all available English-language research on drug and alcohol prohibition, including data going back to the Prohibition era. It found that prohibition efforts increased the profitability of illicit substances and thus fueled violence between crime gangs vying to control illegal markets and other forms of crime and corruption. One striking chart in the study shows a close relationship between the amount of money spent on prohibition enforcement and the U.S. homicide rate since 1900.

Despite the money spent, the supply of drugs hasn't been reduced by enforcement efforts, the study also said. Heroin, for example, is now 80 percent cheaper than it was in 1980, at the beginning of Ronald Reagan's war on drugs.

"Violence may be a natural consequence of drug prohibition when groups compete for massive profits without recourse to formal, non-violent negotiation and dispute resolution mechanisms," the study said.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Books: The New Muckrakers

Read about how some of the greats of U.S. investigative journalism did their work in The New Muckrakers, available from the group Investigative Reporters and Editors.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Documents: the CIA's Evidence-Based "Intelligence Interviewing" Techniques

Fascinating insights into techniques of interviewing reluctant sources are available in this 203-page study of "intelligence interviewing" produced by the U.S. Intelligence Science Board, which answers to the CIA director.

The study, obtained by Federation of American Scientists secrecy blogger Steven Aftergood, is especially interesting because it purports to be based on the best evidence from social psychology, negotiation theory and analyses of professional interrogator cases in law enforcement, the military and intelligence. Included are two annotated case studies to illustrate techniques.

The study focuses on non-coercive interviewing techniques, which in the hands of skilled professionals are said to be capable of "educing" useful, accurate information from most reluctant detainees. The trick is basically pouring on the friendship. It's Barney meets the CIA.

Interesting examples are given of how U.S. interrogators won over Japanese POWs during World War II by speaking with them respectfully about their culture, homeland, village and family.

Especially bizarre - and troubling - are examples of how Nazi Germany's star interrogator Hanns Scharff adroitly manoeuvered downed Allied pilots into giving up valuable intelligence information, often without even being aware they were doing so.

His tricks included making it seem that he was the prisoner's greatest advocate and giving the impression that he already knew everything he was asking but simply needed to hear about it for the sake of bureaucratic formality. ("Hanns could probably get a confession of infidelity from a nun," one POW reportedly said of Scharff. After the war, the U.S. recruited Scharff, as it did with many German intelligence officers.)

The enemy of the interrogator, by the way, is silence - equivalent in journalism to a "no comment" and a hung-up phone. But as the study points out, few detainees succeed in using this strategy, too.

The study also concludes that "coercive interrogation" - involving violence, abuse and threats - is not only morally degrading to the detainee (well, duh), the torturer and the torturer's entire nation, but it is also of zero use. This is even true in the mythical "ticking time-bomb" case popularized by TV shows like 24 for the simple reason that such cases never occur in the way depicted. For example, if a terror suspect were detained who knew of an imminent attack, it's highly unlikely that law enforcement would have no other, additional sources of information with which to stop the attack and thus avoid the use of torture.

See background on the study in this article in the CIA's Studies in Intelligence journal.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Investigations: New Book on Mulroney-Airbus Scandal

Veteran CBC investigative producer Harvey Cashore is out with an interesting-sounding new book about former Canadian PM Brian Mulroney's Airbus affair, titled The Truth Shows Up: A Reporter's Fifteen-Year Odyssey Tracking Down the Truth About Mulroney, Schreiber and the Airbus Scandal. Check out this review by Cecil Rosner, another CBC vet (and advisory board member of the Canadian Centre for Investigative Reporting). Cecil describes the book as a great narrative of investigative procedure. Disclosure: I've worked with both Harvey and Cecil. Looking forward to getting me a copy.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Investigations: WikiLeaks Raw Military Files Up for Public Study

Vast trove of Afghanistan-related internal U.S. military documents released by WikiLeaks here. The nonprofit has organized the files by category (e.g. from "assassination" to "unexploded ordinance"), region, date, severity, etc., including links explaining military jargon and Google maps locations. ProPublica has argued the files are "no Pentagon Papers" - the 1971 military leak that helped turn public opinion against the Vietnam War. But this analysis from Stratfor disagrees, suggesting WikiLeaks has published documents that are even more revealing, especially in what they tell us about Pakistan's support for the Taliban and the hopelessness of the U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan.
I think it's far too early to say the documents aren't significant - not just for their content but also the form in which they've been made available. The full 75,000-document release has yet to be studied thoroughly by more than a few reporters so far, and its full impacts will not be known for weeks or months. Or maybe, due to the sheer volume of files, the WikiLeaks release will overwhelm reporters and the public and fade - as often happens in our era of info overload. What's cool and different now, however, is we all have easy, searchable access to the digital raw files.

In their WikiLeaks form, we can all take a stab at trying to figure out what they mean, rather than a tiny handful of reporters or cognoscenti. Whether some commentators like it or not, this release is a signal event in the democratization of information in the digital era.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Investigations: Your E-Trash's New Home in Ghana

Congrats to a team of enterprising UBC journalism students for their nomination for two Emmy Awards for this doc that tracked what happens to trashed computers, cellphones and TVs. Hundreds of millions of kilos of electronic garbage, which contains toxic material like mercury, lead and brominated flame retardants, have wound up in dumps in Ghana, where it is causing a big environmental mess, reported the doc, which aired on PBS Frontline/World.
The students, whose prof is former 60 Minutes producer Peter Klein, also discovered that gangs are going through discarded hard drives and finding all sorts of confidential personal information and in some cases classified government secrets. Peter also happens to sit on the advisory board of the Canadian Centre for Investigative Reporting (of which I'm the president). Good work!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Investigations: Out-of-Control U.S. Spy Apparatus

The U.S. government's intelligence apparatus has gotten so massive after 9/11 that even top-level insiders are expressing frustration about trying to keep tabs on it. This is the finding of a fascinating two-year Washington Post investigation into the exploding U.S. spy world. Among its findings: Over 1,200 government organizations and 1,900 private companies work in the U.S. intelligence machine. An estimated 854,000 Americans, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., have top-secret security clearances. Also, in Washington and surroundings, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since 9/11. They occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons.
One retired general tasked with reviewing how to track the Defense Department's most sensitive programs concluded: "I'm not aware of any agency with the authority, responsibility or a process in place to coordinate all these interagency and commercial activities... The complexity of this system defies description."

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Legal: UK Court Ruling a Blow to Investigative Reporting

The UK, already notorious for its lax libel law that makes probing media work difficult, is likely to see even more hardship for investigative journalism thanks to a weird and troubling ruling from a UK appeals court in a key libel case involving the Times of London.
The appeals court overturned a lower-court ruling that the newspaper was covered for a story by the so-called "Reynolds privilege" - which allows reporting stories in the public interest so long as the publisher has acted responsibly.

The appeals court said that privilege does not extend to the Times' article reporting that a London police detective-sergeant was under police investigation for accepting bribes from the Russian Mafia. The suit was brought by the police officer.

In the ruling, Lord Justice Neuberger, the UK's second-most senior judge, said: "It seems to me that it would be tipping the scales too far in favour of the media to hold that not only the name of the claimant, but the details of the allegations against him, can normally be published as part of a story free of any right in the claimant to sue for defamation just because the general subject matter of the story is in the public interest."

The Guardian, reporting on the ruling, quoted a media lawyer who said: "This is a decision which is so obviously wrong that it needs to be reviewed." The Times is appealing the decision to the UK's supreme court.

The UK Human Rights Blog also has an interesting post on the ruling here.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Legal: Cops Detain ProPublica Photog Over Town Sign Pix

Here's another one from the post-9/11 annals of security obsession: A news photographer snapping pix of a town's sign in Texas found himself detained and aggressively questioned by cops in two squad cars, a rather edgy local FBI/Homeland Security agent and, last but not least, a security guard from oil giant BP.
Police demanded to see the hapless photog's pictures and even passed his name on to the BP sluggo, despite the fact that it was clear from the pix nothing of any security value was on the camera. Read freelancer Lance Rosenfield's account at the ProPublica site here. (ProPublica had hired Rosenfield to snap the pix for two exposés on BP, linked in that item.) And here is ProPublica's response to the incident.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Investigations: Just 8% of Sunscreens Pass Safety, Marketing Muster

Just eight percent of sunscreens passed muster on a safety and marketing test, according to the fourth annual poll of the Environmental Working Group. Most sunscreens have potentially toxic ingredients or make exaggerated claims about effectiveness, the group reports. See the EWG's site for the list of approved products.
One of the results of the exaggerated product claims: People tend to stay in the sun longer than they should. That finding was confirmed by a new study by the Canadian Dermatology Association, which found Canadians are unaware of the impacts of sun damage and how to protect themselves. The Canadian Medical Association Journal also has this report on the issue.

TAGS: health

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Investigations: How Obama Admin Probes Torture

Interesting story here from Mother Jones about a U.S. federal probe into human-rights investigators who managed to track down and snap pics of CIA officers. The photos were taken as part of the legal defence of 9/11 detainees who say they were tortured and need to ID their tormentors in court. Instead of probing the abuse allegations, the Obama administration has gone after the human-rights workers. Nice touch.

Da Biz: Are Investigative Stories and Print Doomed? Uh, No

Print is dying. Investigative reporting is a money-loser. Those seem to be the truisms of the age. And they're perpetrated as much by digital writers as print media managers themselves. But as this New York Times piece on Rolling Stone magazine's recent series of investigative coups shows, those truisms ain't so true after all.
Rolling Stone has reinvented itself in recent years with longer, probing pieces - most recently the feature that ended the career of Team America fan General Stanley McChrystal (wonder what he thought of the sex scenes). And guess what: Its circulation has increased. Especially among digitally minded and supposedly apathetic young readers.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Interesting: Double Pulitzer Winner Weingarten Reflects on Writing

Interesting Q&A here with The Washington Post's Gene Weingarten, winner of two Pulitzers, about his writing process. Called by humour writer Dave Barry "brilliant, funny and clinically insane," Weingarten won a Pulitzer for this feature about convincing renowned violinist Joshua Bell to play a $3.5-million Stradivarius for spare change in the DC Metro and a second Pulitzer in April for this story about a family whose baby died after being forgotten in the back seat of a car on a hot summer day - something Weingarten admits he once almost did himself.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Investigations: WHO H1N1 Advisors Had Pharma Conflicts

The World Health Organization lacked transparency in its handling of the H1N1 flu outbreak last year and is not being forthcoming about widespread conflict of interest among its medical advisors, who enjoyed close ties to pharmaceutical companies that stood to gain from the experts' advice, according to this interesting investigation by the British Medical Journal and the UK's Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

The report comes out just as the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe issues a separate report also criticizing the WHO's handling of the H1N1 outbreak. It denounced the "unjustified scare" caused by the WHO and the waste of public money on fighting the relatively mild flu. "This was the pandemic that never really was," said one European official. The report also slammed the WHO for "grave shortcomings" in its transparency about the affair.

Now, here's the question I have yet to see addressed in any of the reporting about all this fallout: Will the media organizations that uncritically reported on the scary pronouncements of public-health officials last year look into their own journalistic practices? Hmm, I somehow doubt it. As I noted in this post last November, I don't think I've seen any major story so poorly reported since the drumbeat to war before the 2003 attack on Iraq. And even in the Iraq coverage, most of the reporting at least made a stab at balance by allowing some space - if only at the bottom of the article - for a dissenting voice about the Bush administration's case for going to war. Not so during the H1N1 scare.

But I digress. Back to the BMJ/Bureau investigation. It raises questions about the lack of safety testing of the H1N1 flu vaccine. It also questions the WHO's prediction of 2 billion likely H1N1 cases, which it says had no scientific basis - an estimate widely accepted by journalists and maintained even after a relatively benign flu season in Australia. The health body also substantially loosened the definition of a "pandemic," which previously had been declared only when an outbreak had caused "enormous" death. The WHO labeled H1N1 a pandemic even though the death toll ended up being less than that of a normal flu season.

"Our investigation has identified key scientists involved in WHO pandemic planning who had declarable interests, some of whom are or have been funded by pharmaceutical firms that stood to gain from the guidance they were drafting. Yet these interests have never been publicly disclosed by WHO and, despite repeated requests from the BMJ/The Bureau, WHO has failed to provide any details about whether such conflicts were declared by the relevant experts and what, if anything, was done about them," the BMJ feature reports.

In this accompanying editorial, the BMJ says the WHO and other medical bodies must not only declare conflicts but also go further and eliminate them.

To read more Investigate This! coverage of the H1N1 story, see these blog items (here, here and here) and these pieces I did for The Georgia Straight on the H1N1 vaccine and correlations between H1N1 cases and pig farming (here and here).

TAGS: H1N1, health

Monday, May 31, 2010

Awards: CAJ Winners Announced

Congratulations to the winners of the Canadian Association of Journalists announced on Saturday. See here for the full list.

TAGS: awards

The Biz: Right-Wing Think Tanks Discover Non-Profit Investigative Journalism

Is non-profit investigative journalism the panacea it's sometimes said to be? The Nation Institute's Esther Kaplan rightly questions this conclusion in this piece noting the rise of investigative journalism funded by right-wing think tanks. Kaplan reports that one journalist involved for a while in such a project quit after realizing the work involved "hatchet journalism," not reporting in the public interest.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Investigations: Cellphone Study's Little-Noticed Appendices Reveal Cancer Links

Are cellphones safe or not? A major study of 13,000 people was widely interpreted as being "inconclusive" on links between cellphone use and cancer. However, this analysis by Trent University professor Magda Havas, who specializes in electromagnetic pollution, says the study actually did find some disturbing connections with cancer, which went largely unreported in the media coverage.
She cites the study's two little-noticed appendices that reveal an 84-percent increased risk of meningiomas for those who used digital phones for 1,640 hours or more and a 343-percent increased risk for those used both digital and analogue cellphones or if the type of phone used was unknown. As well, the study found those who used a cellphone for two to four years had a 68-percent increased risk of developing gliomas versus those who had used a cellphone for under two years. As well, there was an 118-percent increased risk for those who used a cellphone for 10 or more years.

These findings occurred, Havas writes, despite the fact that the study's methodology was biased to minimize any adverse effects from cell use. See here for the full Interphone study. (Click Supplementary Data for the two appendices that Havas cites.) The study was produced by the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer with funds from cellphone makers.

For more info, see this GQ investigation of various scientific studies showing other health impacts from cellphone use and how government regulators have so far shielded cellphone makers, refusing to fund independent research into health impacts or to protect the public.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Awards: 2010 Pulitzers

Congratulations to the 2010 Pulitzer Prize winners and finalists, who have just been announced. Special congrats to Sara Jean Green, a good friend and former Montrealer now at The Seattle Times, who picked up the award for Breaking News Reporting along with other Times staffers. Read their coverage of the shooting deaths of four local police officers and the 40-hour manhunt for the suspect here.
The Investigative Reporting category had two winners: Sheri Fink of ProPublica, who in this item in collaboration with The New York Times Magazine investigated how doctors and nurses dealt with dying patients in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and Barbara Laker and Wendy Ruderman of the Philadelphia Daily News, who in this series exposed a rogue police narcotics squad, resulting in an FBI probe and the review of hundreds of criminal cases.

TAGS: awards

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Documents: Review of Major U.S. Court Rulings on Enemy Combatant Detentions

The U.S. Congressional Research Service has just issued a useful new report, Judicial Activity Concerning Enemy Combatant Detainees: Major Court Rulings. It reviews all rulings of the Supreme Court and some lower-court decisions regarding Al Qaeda and Taliban suspect detainees. Thanks to Secrecy News, a bulletin of the Federation of American Scientists, for publicizing this great resource.

Awards: IRE Winners

An investigation into how outdated U.S. legislation is failing to protect drinking water and a massive analysis of Florida's real-estate collapse are two of the winners of the 2010 Investigative Reporters and Editor awards. Congratulations to the winners! The stories are an excellent model for other journalists and give lots of ideas for investigations in our own communities.
Unfortunately, for some odd reason, the site doesn't include links to the actual stories, most of which are freely available on the Web. Catch up to 2010, IRE! :) What would DigiDave say? You have to Google the story title to read the actual piece - although the IRE site does include short descriptions to give you an idea if it'll be of further interest.

TAGS: awards

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Interesting: Why Poland Rejected H1N1 Vaccine

Pharmaceutical companies and governments came under fire at a hearing into the H1N1 flu and vaccine conducted in Paris by European parliamentarians this week, reports the Center for Medical Consumers in this interesting item. The star of the hearing was Dr. Ewa Kopacz, Poland's health minister, who disclosed the secretive and unusual contract terms pharmaceutical firms imposed on governments to sell them the H1N1 flu vaccine.
Poland refused to do a mass vaccination of its citizens because of the onerous terms and doubts about the vaccine's safety, Kopacz said. The country wound up with relatively low flu rates compared to other countries, the item says.

The contract for the vaccine required Poland to pay two to three times more than for regular seasonal flu vaccines, even though the technologies to produce them are the same, Kopacz said. As well, Poland would have had to sign a contract absolving the drug-maker of responsibility for vaccine injuries, she said. Other countries, including Canada and the U.S., agreed to such terms. Click the tag links below for more coverage at this site on H1N1 and the flu vaccine. Also, see these blog posts (here, here and here).

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Investigation: Widely Used, Unregulated Nano-Particles Linked to Cancer, Other Major Diseases

A frightening report has come out on some of the nano-particles now present in close to 10,000 consumer products - everything from creams and cosmetics to icing, medicines, toothpaste and nutritional supplements. Mice that consumed the tiny particles suffered high levels of DNA damage and genetic instability associated with cancer, heart disease, neurological disease and aging, according to a study cited in a three-part AOL News investigation of nano-particles.
Nearly a million kilograms of nano-particles are produced and used each year in the U.S. alone, the story says - with virtually no government oversight. Labeling and safety compliance are generally left to manufacturers, while some government officials say they don't want to interfere in the industry's progress. The global market for the particles was $254 billion in 2005 and is expected to grow 10-fold by 2014. The 2011 U.S. federal budget has earmarked $1.8 billion in spending on nanotechnology.

TAGS: health

Monday, April 5, 2010

Investigations: Classified Footage Shows U.S. Attack on Journalists, Children in Iraq

WikiLeaks has broadcast dramatic and shocking classified footage of a U.S. Apache helicopter attacking and killing two Reuters journalists and civilians who come to help. Two girls were seriously injured and then denied access to U.S. military medical help. Reuters has spent two years trying to obtain the footage through a Freedom of Information request. Visit this special WikiLeaks page to see and hear the footage and read details of the incident.

TAGS: Iraq, military

Monday, March 22, 2010

Interesting: Why Med Journal Banned Tobacco-Funded Studies

Some medical journals are banning studies funded by tobacco companies. Here's an interesting Q&A with Ginny Barbour, the chief editor of PLoS Medicine, on why her journal doesn't accept the studies. "There is a huge problem with all corporate funding of clinical trials: it's like asking the coach of the football team to referee the game," Barbour says.
Also linked in the story is this very interesting PLoS study on the influence one tobacco company was able to wield on major European Union policies, based on hundreds of internal company documents.

TAGS: health

Friday, March 19, 2010

Investigations: Flu Vaccines Had no Impact in Nursing Homes

A new scientific review raises questions about the usefulness of flu vaccinations. It found that vaccination of nursing-home staff did not have any impact on the incidence of confirmed flu cases among the elderly residents, the number of related pneumonia cases or pneumonia-linked deaths. Coauthor Roger Thomas of the University of Calgary said measures like hand-washing should be prioritized in anti-flu campaigns, rather than vaccination measures.
"What we were looking for is proof that influenza... is decreased. Didn't find it," Thomas told The National Post. "We looked for proof that pneumonia is reduced. Didn't find it. We looked for proof deaths from pneumonia are reduced. Didn't find it."

Interesting: How Censorship Shapes Afghan Reporting

Interesting article from Brian Stewart at on how military censorship of embedded journalists impacts what the public finds out about the Canadian presence in Afghanistan, including rocket attacks on Canadian bases and Canadian casualty numbers. Thanks to Bilbo for sharing this item.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Investigations: Over Half of News is Spin

Fifty-five percent of news stories in Australian media are the result of "spin," an interesting investigation has found. At one newspaper, 70 percent of stories were triggered in some way by a public-relations campaign. The Spinning the Media project, launched by the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism, had 40 journalism students look into hard news stories to find out how they were born. The investigations included calls to journalists and editors, most of whom refused to talk.
"Journalism in Australia today is heavily influenced by commercial interests selling a product and constrained and blocked by politicians, police and others who control the media message," the investigation found.

There's no reason to think the situation is different in North America.

TAGS: media

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Interesting: Pharma Marketing, MD Screening Tests Under Fire

Yet another pharma scandal is now blowing up over at Pfizer, reports in this item. A former Pfizer executive, Jesse Polansky, has sued the drug-maker in a whistleblower case alleging that Pfizer illegally schemed to boost the sales of its drug Lipitor for off-label uses (ones not approved by government regulators). See background on the case in this Wall Street Journal item. (It should be noted that Pfizer dismisses Polansky's claims, and federal authorities have declined to join the suit on Polansky's side.)
In a related item, the Seattle Times reports in this piece that a slew of reports indicate doctors are ordering too many screening tests and C-sections that can actually harm patients without any evidence-based benefit.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Investigations: Vaccine-Autism Debunker Disappears Amid Fraud Probe

A leading scientist involved in debunking links between mercury-laced vaccines and autism has disappeared in the midst of an investigation of whether he forged documents to steal $2 million, the Huffington Post and other media report here and here.
Dr. Poul Thorsen's work was used by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and reporters to say that mercury in vaccines is safe for children. Thorsen relied on data from Denmark that showed reported autism rates shot up after mercury was banned in vaccines, according to the reports. Thorsen's conclusions have been widely disputed because Denmark had at the same time improved reporting of autism, and an autism clinic had opened in Copenhagen.

Mercury was phased out of many vaccines after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found in 1999 that many children were receiving excessive doses of mercury. But it is still present as a preservative in many flu vaccines given to children. A 2008 study in the journal Toxicological and Environmental Chemistry found that boys who were given a vaccine with thimerosal, a form of mercury, were nine times more likely to have developmental problems than unvaccinated boys.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Interesting: Reports on Sat Surveillance, Afghan Casualties

Interesting new reports from the U.S. Congressional Research Service. The first is on civil-rights issues related to the possible expansion of satellite surveillance within the U.S. This report, made available at the site of the Federation of American Scientists, covers existing practices, restrictions, legal issues and proposals to expanding surveillance. The second report is a detailed analysis of Afghan military and civilian casualties.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Interesting: Exploiting Disaster in Haiti

As legions of aid workers, security personnel and diplomats descended on Haiti in the wake of its earthquake disaster, how much of the millions in help actually made its way to Haitians? Montreal nurse Scott Weinstein, who quickly headed down to help survivors, reports in this interesting first-person account in Montreal Serai magazine that the foreign interests have mostly worked to further their own interests. Meanwhile, ordinary Haitians have little say in the rebuilding.
But unless they have a seat at the table, Weinstein writes, "so-called aid becomes another weapon to exploit these good people who liberated themselves from slavery and are still paying the price."

Friday, February 19, 2010

Awards: Calling Canadian Writers

New writing awards have been launched this year at the Professional Writers Association of Canada. The two awards, which come with prizes worth $500 apiece, are for non-fiction features and shorter pieces published in Canadian print and web media. (I'm co-chair of the PWAC committee that spearheaded the awards.) See more details here. The judges are journalism profs Stephen Kimber and Maxine Ruvinsky, Montreal authors Elaine Kalman Naves and Eric Siblin, Best Health editor Jennifer Walker and Bilbo Poynter, executive director of the Canadian Centre for Investigative Reporting. Deadline for entries: Friday, March 19.

TAGS: awards

Monday, February 8, 2010

Investigations: H1N1 Might not Have Been a Pandemic

Concerns about how Canadian and other public-health authorities handled the H1N1 pandemic are finally starting to make their way into Canadian media. As I noted in this post in November, Canadian journalists have been astonishingly uncritical in their "reporting" on the flu outbreak. Protéger-Vous, the Quebec consumer magazine, has just published this interesting in-depth look at the pandemic, which some prominent health experts now say was not a true pandemic at all.
For a critical look at H1N1 and the flu vaccine, see this story I did in The Georgia Straight last November. And to see an investigation I did last summer on how flu cases correlated strongly with intensive hog farming operations, see here and here.

On a related note, the British Medical Journal has just published this interesting critical review of the research trials done on Tamiflu, one of the main antiviral drugs stockpiled worldwide to combat H1N1 and other seasonal flus at a cost of several billion dollars. The review found that most of the studies of the drug's effectiveness and side-effects had not been published in peer-reviewed journals, were sponsored by the drug-maker itself or were poorly designed.

Limited evidence suggests that benefits from Tamiflu are modest - a half-day to one-day reduction in flu symptoms, if taken within 48 hours of their onset - while the rate of side-effects (including some reports of sudden behaviour changes, suicidal tendencies, hallucination and sudden death during sleep) has not been thoroughly studied. The review's surprising conclusion: Tamiflu and related drugs "should not be used in routine control of seasonal influenza."

For more perspective on this paper, see this analysis by the U.S. Center for Medical Consumers.

TAGS: H1N1, health

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Investigations: Your Cellphone May be Frying Your Skull

Is your cellphone or PDA frying your brain? The notion is often dismissed by scientists, especially in North America, but an interesting GQ magazine investigation says a growing body of research suggests the devices could be as bad as tobacco or lead paint - and that we could be in for major public-health problems as a result. Studies are linking their use to "brain aging," brain damage, early-onset Alzheimer's, senility, DNA damage and sperm die-offs (because cells are often kept in pockets or at the hip).
Studies have found the chance of getting a brain tumour is up to 40 percent higher among adults who've used a cell for a decade. The devices can cause tumours of the parotid gland (located in the cheek). A Swedish study last year found people who started using a cell before age 20 were five times more likely to develop a brain tumour. Another study reported a nearly 300 percent increased risk of acoustic neuroma, a tumour of the acoustic nerve.

But GQ reports U.S. authorities have so far acted to shield cellphone makers, refusing to support independent research or protect the public. Meanwhile, cellphone companies have funded skewed studies denying there is a problem.

AlterNet, picking up on this report, has this story that adds more depth to the discussion, including links to this New York Times piece on rifts among scientists doing a massive, long-awaited $24-million study on cellphone health impacts, funded partially by the telecom industry. Scientists involved in the study are reportedly so at odds with each other over the findings some are not even on speaking terms. The results have ambled about for three years without being published. But the study is already being criticized as flawed because of a faulty methodology that excludes the most vulnerable populations.

TAGS: health

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Investigations: Karzai Brother at Centre of Afghan Land Grabs

More controversy is swirling around Afghan President Hamid Karzai's controversial brother Ahmed Wali. You'll remember that Ahmed Wali is considered the most powerful figure in Kandahar and that U.S. officials have linked him to the drug trade, as I wrote in this Montreal Gazette feature last August. (Both Karzai brothers deny the accusation.)
Now, NPR reports that Ahmed Wali is at the centre of land grabs that are said to be fueling widespread public resentment in the country. (Ahmed Wali didn't respond to NPR's request for comment.)

The problem is growing fast across Afghanistan, where powerful warlords are evicting Afghan residents and seizing their land with little or no compensation. Even public land is being seized. Half-hearted efforts in Kabul to rein in the warlords haven't worked.

As I reported in August, the rampant corruption is said to be pushing citizens to hook up with the Taliban insurgency, while Canadian and other Western officials seem to be turning a blind eye.

Investigations: Fatty Acids Cut Mental Illness Among At-Risk Youth

Fatty acids significantly reduced the risk of mental illness among young people with extremely high chances of developing psychosis, according to a new study in the journal Archives of General Psychiatry. What's more, the omega-3 fatty acids didn't have any side effects - unlike pharmaceutical drugs for the same conditions - and the effects lasted even after the study.
In the first study of its kind, young people aged 13 to 25 who were deemed to have up to 40 percent chance of developing psychosis were given a daily fish oil capsule. Only 4.9 percent went on to develop psychosis. In a placebo group, 27.5 percent developed psychosis. See this blog item for more details. Results were similar when at-risk youth were given polyunsaturated fatty acids.

TAGS: health

Tools: Free Books & Mags

Here's a great resource if you're looking for a book or magazine: This searchable resource has massive numbers of free electronic material. I've just added it to my blogroll in the right-hand column.
Btw, your suggestions for sites to add to my links list are very welcome.

TAGS: tools

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Investigations: Chemical-Doused Shrimp Escapes Regulators

Shrimp always seemed like a healthy food choice to me. Not so, according to this AlterNet report citing a book by Montreal's Taras Grescoe, Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood. The award-winning book (including a nod for best non-fiction book from the Writers' Trust of Canada) says shrimp - America's most popular seafood - are treated with a remarkable soup of chemicals like diesel, Borax, superphosphate, urea and sodium tripolyphosphate (the last being a suspected neurotoxin).
Few imported shrimp are inspected by food regulators. And "when researchers examined ready-to-eat shrimp, they found 162 separate species of bacteria with resistance to 10 different antibiotics," says the AlterNet story. Visit the Bottomfeeder Web site for more details.

TAGS: health, food

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Interesting: Pentagon Review of UAV Mishaps

Unmanned aerial vehicles are so hot right now. With UAVs quickly taking over in importance from manned airplanes in the U.S. military, this new Pentagon study outlines the challenges they pose to mission control. Communications, for one thing, are more critical than for manned planes. They are thus subject to attack or disruption by natural elements.
As Wired reports in this story, another U.S. military drone crashed in Pakistan a few days ago. Various drones have suffered 85 "class A" mishaps - accidents that cost a million dollars or more. As the U.S. ramps up attacks in Pakistan, expect more such mishaps. Thanks to Secrecy News, a publication of the Federation of American Scientists, for info for this post.

TAGS: military

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Grants: Atkinson Deadline on Jan. 11

Don't miss the upcoming Jan. 11 deadline for the Atkinson Charitable Foundation's Fellowship in Public Policy for Canadian journalists. See more on this prestigious award and other Atkinson grants at the charity's website. See other grants for journalists in my blogroll under "Awards & Grants."

TAGS: grants, awards