The role of sources in news and views

As a parent of children with respiratory issues I am always on the look out for information and advice about causes and solutions. Sadly however, this page from the British Lung Foundation is typical of the poor quality, verging on fake news-like articles that I find. 

Under the section of ‘your stories’, perhaps these pages shouldn’t be taken too factually, but when the page contains not sources whatsoever for the many statements of fact that it presents, it just feels unhelpful and lazy. Irresponsible even for a registered charity with the officious and trustworthy sounding ‘British Lung Foundation’ title. 

The story outlines a parent, Shazia, who *says* air pollution is damaging her child’s lungs and that after a GP diagnosed asthma that she *thinks* it was partly caused my traffic fumes.

The story goes on:

After we moved home, my husband noticed that his own asthma was getting worse. The consultant told us we’re living in one of the worst areas of the city for breathing problems. 

Noticing is all well and good, but was there any actual measure? How much worse? To what end? And what data did the consultant base their information about the air quality in your area? I’m a ‘consultant’ by definition. If I told you it wasn’t would that suffice another article on the BLF website about a consultant saying air in your area was of the cleanest in the city? 


I was pregnant at the time, so I started researching how air pollution affects babies and children. One report showed that children brought up with high exposure to diesel fumes developed smaller lungs.

Which report? How hard would it be for the words ‘one report showed’ to be a hyperlink here? Rather than just the words ‘air pollution’ which unhelpfully link to the generic air pollution page on the BLF website? Where is the evidence? Further down maybe? Nope…  

…we decided to test the air around the school area. I wanted to find out what the pollution levels were like where we live, learn and walk every day. Every street with a continuous flow of traffic was above legal safe limits for a pollutant called nitrogen dioxide – which comes from diesel car fumes. Most areas were 25% of more over the limit – but the worst was 4 times higher!

What test did you do? What equipment was used? When, and for how long were tests carried out? What area was this? What legal limits? Defined by who? Who interpreted the data? There are so many simple reference and source links that could be added here to add value to readers. Without sources, this story can only be taken as hearsay. Or even totally fake.  

If we do not act more swiftly a generation of children will grow up with irreversible health impacts caused by air pollution. The government’s own forecasts show that air in my area won’t be clean enough to breathe until 2025. My children will be 18, 16 and 12 by then – the damage will already be done. Without air pollution, children can develop normally. And pollution is taking a huge toll on older people too. It’s estimated that thousands of people in areas of high pollution are dying earlier then they otherwise would due to exposure to these pollutants. This is a public health crisis. And it affects every one of us.

Again, I want hyperlink references on ‘irreversible health impacts’, ‘government’s own forecasts’, ‘a huge toll on older people too’ and ‘estimated that thousands of people’. Without these links the story is as worthless and dangerous as any piece of fake news published by Macedonia teens. And I want these links because I empathise for Shazia. We’re in the same boat. I just want more certainty that my focus and efforts are in the right place. 

The use of the hyperlink was the bedrock of the world wide web. The ability to link a myriad of pages together in order to provide deeper and wider reference. It’s a href attribute, literally a HTML reference, encouraging reference by definition. Without references to sources it means stories, news and articles are just opinion pieces. 

Like this. My writings are all just opinions and interpretations of what I think and read, with references where I feel relevant or helpful for my small and likely opinionated audience. If you’re a charity or news outlet though, receiving funding or advertising revenue, with an audience seeing you as a reliable and trustworthy source, you should do far better than the BLF stories. 

To be fair, other sections of the BLF website seem pretty good. Their statistics and methodology pages alone give me the confidence as a parent to feel like I have access to useful and trustworthy data. Another source of which is this Defra National Statistics Release: Emissions of air pollutants in the UK, 1970 to 2014 PDF which shows a clear decline in almost everything over the past 40 years, belying my fears a little at least, that my kids are being poisoned any more than generations before them. Still, there is further progress to be made, and Chicken Licken stories won’t help us make it.