Assignment Prompts Reporter to Change His Cell Phone Habits

Why Nick Bilton now uses a headset.

Sometimes, details about the reporting of the story are as intriguing as the story itself.

Halfway through the NYT Styles section article “Could Wearable Computers Be as Harmful as Cigarettes?” (the headline has since been changed), columnist Nick Bilton wonders about the fact that a source who believes cell phones can be potentially harmful to the human body has instructed him to call out to a cell:

While Dr. Joseph Mercola is a vocal proponent of cellphone safety, he told me to call him on his cell when I emailed about an interview. When I asked him whether he was being hypocritical, he replied that technology is a fact of life, and that he uses it with caution. As an example, he said he was using a Bluetooth headset during our call.

And at the very end of the piece, Bilton reveals he’s similarly changed his own cell habits:

After researching this column, talking to experts and poring over dozens of scientific papers, I have realized the dangers of cellphones when used for extended periods, and as a result I have stopped holding my phone next to my head and instead use a headset.

Meanwhile, Keith Kloor, a science writer for Discover magazine, has quickly criticized Bilton for using Mercola as a primary source and failing to mention the good doctor’s allegedly challenged reputation as an expert.

Update (March 20):
Much more criticism of the article’s scientific sourcing followed the initial volley by Kloor mentioned above. As a result, the Times today added a lengthy note to Bilton’s piece:

Addendum: March 20, 2015
Editors’ Note

The Disruptions column in the Styles section on Thursday, discussing possible health concerns related to wearable technology, gave an inadequate account of the status of research about cellphone radiation and cancer risk.

Neither epidemiological nor laboratory studies have found reliable evidence of such risks, and there is no widely accepted theory as to how they might arise. According to the World Health Organization, “To date, no adverse health effects have been established as being caused by mobile phone use.” The American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute, the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have all said there is no convincing evidence for a causal relationship. While researchers are continuing to study possible risks, the column should have included more of this background for balance.

In addition, one source quoted in the article, Dr. Joseph Mercola, has been widely criticized by experts for his claims about disease risks and treatments. More of that background should have been included, or he should not have been cited as a source.

An early version of the headline for the article online — “Could Wearable Computers Be as Harmful as Cigarettes?” — also went too far in suggesting any such comparison.

 
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