If you haven't read this wonderful article by Paul Bradshaw, you must do so. It's a stellar piece describing exactly how those myths peddled by the mainstream media about teh evilz of the deadly internetwork are not only misleading, but specifically misleading in that the mainstream is more fact-free, more unrepresentative of the population and less trustworthy than the internet world.
One of the things I like about the internet, and social networking, is that facts can be challenged instantly and mainstream media guff and churnalism called out straight away. You don't need to sit in a dusty newspaper library looking at clippings, then painstakingly research for weeks; what you need is available to you right away. Presumably this is another reason why the mainstream media don't like the internet: their work is open to instant scrutiny by irritating amateurs like me, cheeky haemorrhoids on the arsehole of media output.
The great thing about the web-savvy generation is that we question everything. You have to. Your first experience of the internet often centres around someone lying to you - someone telling you that he wants to put some money in your bank account; someone claiming to be from an airline saying that he's found something of yours; someone claiming to be your bank, telling you to update your security issues and pop over a password via email; someone pretending to be someone they're not when they're chatting to you. As soon as you see anything, you want to challenge it, and you want to make sure. We're no longer happy to be told "That's the way it is" by our masters in the press, because we're not so sure they can be so sure, and we're not so sure they might not be twisting things.
So when you see something like this
you can say to yourself: Hang on, is that really accurate, or is it missing the point a bit? To be fair to the Beeb, at least they have balanced out the story with this quote:
Ed Yong, of Cancer Research UK, said: "This study was done in rats.
"Overall, research in humans does not suggest there is a direct link between stress and breast cancer.
"But it's possible that stressful situations could indirectly affect the risk of cancer by making people more likely to take up unhealthy behaviours that increase their risk, such as overeating, heavy drinking, or smoking."
Worth pointing out the rats bit, given that they don't have quite the same emotional attachments as human beings - at least I don't think so, not having ever been a rat (though there may be some who'll disagree with that). The Mail covered the story in a similar way, also urging caution despite the headline:
but it's still been done in this order: People might get worse cancer if they're lonely, oh but someone else points out this was a small study done on rats, and not people. And both media outlets have used photographs of a human being, rather than a rat in a lab. The Mail even talks of 'a woman with breast cancer' whereas they should be talking about 'a female rat'.
Another marvellous asset the reader of news has available is independent analysis of media coverage, which in this country comes from the NHS and their 'behind the headlines' section:
The research found an association between isolated rearing, increased stress responses and increased tumour burden in rats that were genetically predisposed to tumours.
Although the animal study was well conducted it shows an association rather than a direct causal relationship between corticosterone levels and an increased likelihood of malignant tumours.
Also, while rats and humans are both social animals their social dynamics clearly differ. The stress factors used in this experimental work are not relevant to modelling how human social interactions may affect risk of breast cancer, and it is not clear how relevant changes in corticosterone hormones are to the development of cancer in humans.
I find something comforting in reading such a calm and measured response to these medical stories. On the one hand you have "being alone might make cancer worse" and on the other you have "if you're a rat predisposed to having a certain type of cancer".
Luckily, I'm not a rat. But that's the brilliance of the web, and why the mainstream media are really angry about it: everything you write can be looked up and analysed straight away. It's not just the people who can afford the massive printing presses who control what people can read, because people can seek out information on a huge range of subjects - often the original source material (though not in this case unless you want to subscribe to the journal in question). And that has to be a good thing, worth celebrating and treasuring.