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Fabricating fictional stories to pass off as news is simply unacceptable for serious journalism. It diminishes the credibility of the media, it spits in the face of anyone affected by these events, and it makes fools of the public.

NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams is under investigation for claiming he was in a helicopter that had been hit with a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq in 2003. Williams recently admitted he was never on the attacked helicopter. The military news site called Stars and Stripes also brought forward a claim from one of the crew members on his helicopter that they were an hour behind the one that was actually attacked. Williams’ response was, “and that’s the first I’ve heard of that. I did not think we were in trail by that far.”

Witnesses have also come forward stating that his coverage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 contained inaccurate or fabricated stories, including a story about gangs infiltrating the Ritz-Carlton he was staying at. The story goes that he and the NBC members he was with were all trapped in the hotel by armed gangs brandishing guns and terrorizing guests. He made a break for it to make it outside the hotel, where a gang was ready to take the NBC vehicle they came in. Louisiana National Guardsman then appeared to confront the gang, and ensured that the NBC members could enter their vehicle and escape.

There are inconsistencies with this told story in two interviews between Williams and two separate authors named Douglas Brinkley and Judith Sylvester. The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that Williams “rushed to the scene only to find that although a group of men had tried to enter the hotel, they weren’t armed and were easily turned back by police.” Other witnesses also claim there were no gangs at all.

There are also investigations into his reporting of events in the Lebanon-Israel 2006 war, including claims that Hezbollah rockets exploded under his helicopter. Williams has told varying versions of this story through the years with inconsistencies pertaining to where the rockets were seen. His written blog for NBC News makes no mention of rockets.

The public deserves the truth from their news broadcasts. I don’t know whether to be impressed that Williams was able to deceive his viewers for this long without being caught or disgusted that it took this long to find out. It is entirely possible that Williams remains employed after these investigations. After all, he is a large part of their ratings as there is an appeal in his confident demeanour and tone delivering stories. He continues to receive support from fans old and young across his lengthy career in the public eye.

This is unacceptable. We must not stand for liars delivering our news. We should demand our public figures tell facts instead of fiction, truths instead of falsehoods, and realities instead of fantasies. While admitting to the falsified Iraq story is admirable in its own way, the repercussions must be strong enough to demonstrate the value of journalistic integrity over ratings. Any credibility that NBC wishes to salvage rides on the decision to keep Brian Williams on their cast. I fear that the wrong decision will be made.

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Update: NBC has announced that Brian Williams will be suspended without pay for six months. Lester Holt will continue to substitute anchor in his stead. "By his actions, Brian Williams has jeopardized the trust millions of Americans place in NBC News," NBC Universal Chief Executive Steve Burke said in a network statement. “His actions are inexcusable and this suspension is severe and appropriate.”

By: Allison Ouellette

“Soap causes cancer!” screamed numerous news outlets this week. The findings from a study produced by researchers from the University of California have been grossly exaggerated.

The university’s press release, “The Dirty Side of Soap,” misrepresents the study’s results. It claims that triclosan, a common antimicrobial agent in hygiene products, “causes liver fibrosis and cancer in mice.” By exaggerating the scope of the research, the press release misleads readers, including journalists.

Shortly after the press release was published, fear-mongering articles from popular news sources arose. They unduly warned readers that triclosan could harm their health. One source called the research a “cancer scare.” Others falsely reported the findings as conclusive and exaggerated the study’s relevance to humans. Many writers distorted the scope of the research to the extent that the “facts” in their articles barely resemble the study’s conclusions.

Contrary to the university’s press release and several online articles, the researchers did not conclude that triclosan causes cancer in mice. The researchers found that large amounts of ingested triclosan may promote tumour growth in mice. To observe triclosan’s effect on tumour growth, the researchers injected mice with a chemical (diethylnitrosamine) that is capable of inducing liver cancer.

In a separate group of mice, the researchers found that ingested triclosan can lead to liver damage.

The study results cannot be applied to humans. Although mice are used to model human disease, some chemicals that are toxic to mice may not be toxic to humans. As the authors of the study recommend, long-term observational studies in humans must be conducted before triclosan’s effect on humans can be understood. Also, since people do not eat large amounts of triclosan as the mice did in the study, the results observed in the mice are not reasonable to expect in humans.

Although the study does not provide enough evidence to condemn antibacterial soap, consumers may want to reconsider purchasing antibacterial soaps for other reasons. Though triclosan and other antibacterial agents are useful to healthcare workers, Health Canada notes that antibacterial soap is usually unnecessary in the home. Further, when triclosan is washed down the drain, it may cause environmental damage. Triclosan in toothpaste, however, can significantly prevent plaque and gingivitis, according to the Cochrane Review.

The study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a scientific journal. According to standard practice, to access an article in the journal, one must either belong to an organization or institution that purchases a subscription, or pay for access to the article. Consequently, most people do not have access to articles published in journals.

Even if the public were granted access to journals, articles would still be inaccessible. Few people possess enough scientific literacy to interpret and evaluate a biological study. Most people rely on writers and journalists to identify and publicize important research findings.

It is the responsibility of science correspondents to be scientifically literate and commit to reporting findings accurately. They must critically evaluate a study and understand the significance of findings before they can communicate truthfully. Just as ignorance of the law is not an excuse for committing a crime, lack of scientific literacy is not an excuse for distributing false information.

Shocking and overblown headlines commit a disservice to readers. Exaggerated research findings may serve to boost traffic to websites, increase research funding, or sway consumers to purchase certain products. None of these reasons justify invoking gratuitous fear in readers.

The latest research does not demonstrate whether triclosan negatively affects human health. It is unethical to claim otherwise. The media must uphold the integrity of science to produce ethical journalism. Fear mongering and sensationalizing disrupts the shared foundation of science and journalism: to report truthfully.

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