The first really complex story I did for the New York Daily News was an explainer on the new system for rating the radiation emissions of mobile phones that was rolled out by the Federal Communication Commission in 2000. This was back when the only safety data available was from studies funded by the telecom industry, so the story also had to address the larger controversy over the possible dangers of cell phone radiation.
Scientific controversy is always hard to write about, especially for a layman reader scanning a tabloid on the subway, but a few choice details can often provide the context necessary for readers to make up their own minds.
For example, I thought the comfort offered by the industy’s published findings that cell phone radiation posed no risk was somewhat mitigated by the telecom industry’s lead scientist telling me that he was buying plug-in headsets for everyone in his family and didn’t recommend holding cell phones near your head.
Another interesting takeaway from this story was that the FCC’s SAR radiation standard used to declare cell phone radiation levels safe is actually based on the standards for microwave ovens and pertain only to the heat they generate. So despite the implicit assurance that the radiation won’t cause genetic damage or brain tumors, all the safety standards really guarantee is that your cell phone won’t literally cook your brain.