Reporting FAIL

There's currently an item in the news about a British boy who managed to damage his eyesight with a "laser pointer". The news articles generally imply that any laser pointer is a lurking risk to your eyesight ready to blind you with a single incautious glance. But there are the ordinary 1-5 mW laser pointers you can buy in dollar stores, and then there are the pocket lasers you can buy online that have powers up to 500 mW and that can burn a hole in a credit card. If this kid managed to damage his eye with the former, well, that's surprising and alarming. But the articles don't describe the laser at all, beyond the fact that he ordered it on the internet. If you go to the original one in the British Medical Journal, though, you still don't get the power rating, but you find out that it was "high-powered", i.e. almost certainly one of the high-power ones you can get online. Of course you can damage your eyes with these; I strongly doubt it would be possible to get one without being made aware of the danger. What's more, the high-power ones are already arguably illegal in many places, not that that stops online companies from shipping them there.

The key point I'm getting at is that all the media coverage is missing the essential information that this is not a normal laser pointer, and that those are basically not dangerous.

[Edit: I emailed the corresponding author of the BMJ piece. Unfortunately the boy's guardian destroyed the laser before the doctor could see it, but the doctor is certain that it was one of the high-powered lasers I describe above. It's too bad none of the reporters bothered to check that detail, but I guess it doesn't make good copy.]


FatBigot said...

You must remember that this is a British tabloid newspaper. They regularly distort (as here) or simply make things up to sell newspapers.

Conflating class 1 over-the-counter devices with unregulated internet stuff is typical. What is unusual in this case is a link to the original source so the distortion is plain.

For a laugh, look at The (New) Daily Mail Oncological Ontology Project, which describes itself as "An ongoing quest to track the Daily Mail's classification of inanimate objects into two types: those that cause cancer, and those that cure it." it can be found at:

Anne M. Archibald said...

The particular article I pointed to may be a dodgy British tabloid, but the Agence France Presse article is no better. The BBC article is slightly better, in that it mentions that you should be particularly afraid of the high-powered ones you can get on the Internet.

I suspect they're so bad because they're all just echoing the BMJ original article. But one of the standard reasons to claim "old media were better" is that reporters are supposed to be willing to do things like phone the doctors involved to get extra details.