“Never before,” said the congressman, “has society been confronted with a power so full of potential danger . . . (a) menace to our people.”
No, he wasn’t talking about nuclear energy in the 1950s or about electromagnetic fields in the 1990s; he was talking about the internal combustion engine in the 1850s.
Americans have always had what Michael Fumento, in his book “Science Under Siege,” calls a “fear and loathing of technology,” and that fear plays a major role in the central paradox of our time:
Thanks largely to technology, Americans are “safer than ever before,” says Lester Lave, an economist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “But at the same time, they are more concerned about health and safety than ever before.”
The news media, which should be able to alleviate public anxiety by explaining the benefits of modern technology--and by putting the risks of technology in perspective--instead often exacerbate anxiety with ignorant and/or alarmist coverage.
But risk assessment studies have repeatedly shown that despite reassurances from scientists (and even, at times, from the media), people are frightened by nuclear energy, electromagnetic fields, pesticides and other new chemicals and technologies precisely because they are new--exotic, unfamiliar and, frequently, invisible. That’s more unnerving to most people than the familiar, visible bicycle or swimming pool, both of which are involved in several hundred deaths a year.
Risk assessment experts say many Americans are afraid of modern technology in part because they have lost faith in technology. If our supposedly superior technology couldn’t win the war in Vietnam or even rescue a few dozen hostages in Iran, this thinking suggests, how can it be trusted to develop safe medical devices, pesticides or cellular telephones.
Some social critics see this as part of a larger loss of faith in everything from government to so-called experts to the media to American industry itself. In this bleak view: The government lied to us about Watergate and Vietnam. The experts are wrong about everything from the economy to criminal trials. The media hide behind the 1st Amendment, but they really only want to sell papers and boost ratings. The automobile companies said they couldn’t afford to put seat belts or passive restraints in cars because people wouldn’t pay for them. The tobacco companies still say smoking cigarettes hasn’t been proven to cause lung cancer.
Can anyone be believed anymore? Or does everyone have a vested interest in promoting a specific agenda? Experts in risk assessment say these are key components in many people’s perception of risk, regardless of what the experts or the media say: Why should I take a risk when someone else gets the benefit? If you enjoy smoking, fine; but I don’t, so why should I have to take a chance on jeopardizing my health--or why do I have to suffer the discomfort of inhaling your smoke?
But there are almost as many factors in people’s perception of risk as there are elements in the atmosphere. The California Environmental Protection Agency tried to address some of those concerns this year in a 640-page comparative risk report urging that a higher priority be given to environmental problems that affect people’s peace of mind and “good mental health.”
Just as people are more likely to be suspicious of artificial pesticides than of natural pesticides, so are they more likely to worry about risks they cannot control (airplane crashes) than about risks they think they can control (car crashes), even though actuarial data are overwhelmingly against them.
Studies have shown that as many as 85% of drivers think they are “better than average,” a perception that is disproved not only by statistical probability but by the statistics on highway carnage.
More than 40,000 Americans a year die in traffic accidents. Your chance of being one of them is about 1 in 6,000. Last week’s tragic crash of a USAir jet near Pittsburgh notwithstanding, your chance of being killed in the crash of a First World commercial airliner, according to MIT, is 1 in 4.4 million. For a domestic flight, the risk is even smaller--1 in 11 million if you’re on an established air carrier on a coast-to-coast flight.
But one-third of Americans don’t even bother to wear seat belts in their cars, and just as the media devote far more coverage to air crashes than to highway deaths, so most Americans worry more about flying than about driving.
One reason for this, of course, is that most fatal car accidents involve relatively few people. When a commercial airliner goes down, hundreds may die. That high toll--along with the relative rarity of a major air crash--powerfully concentrates both the human mind and the media spotlight.
Perhaps the greatest distinction people make in evaluating risks--consciously or not--is the degree to which they willingly assume the risk.
Study after study has shown that people resent most strongly those risks, real or imagined, that have been thrust upon them--as is the case with everything from pesticides to nuclear power plants; they are far more tolerant of risks they assume voluntarily.
The U.S. Department of Transportation has estimated, for example, that Americans’ increased preference for small cars has led to an additional 1,300 traffic deaths annually. But no one forced Americans to buy those smaller cars or concealed from them the greater vulnerability to severe collision damage. People decided to trade off greater safety for greater fuel efficiency--assuming they thought about the trade-off at all.
“If you choose to smoke, if you choose to drive a car, if you choose to sky-dive . . . if you choose to eat movie popcorn, those are all voluntary choices you’re making, realizing that there’s some degree of risk involved,” says Rae Tyson, who writes about the environment for USA Today. “Being exposed to some chemical that’s emanating from the wallboard in your living room is not a voluntary risk.”
It’s the involuntary risks that get the most media coverage because it’s the involuntary risks that most outrage the public.
Ironically, many social scientists say, there is one overriding explanation for our outrage: Medical science and economic advancement have so reduced or eliminated many of our longstanding, legitimate fears--and so improved our standard of living--that we (in the news media and the public alike) have the luxury to worry about many essentially peripheral and hypothetical problems.
“A richer society can afford to worry more about de minimus risks,” says Bud Ward, executive director of the National Health Center of the National Safety Council. “The wealthier we become, the better educated we become, probably the more risk-averse we’re going to become.
“I don’t think the people in Rwanda now . . . worry much about radon or Alar or lead poisoning.”
The millions of poor people in the world, the homeless and the starving, are not the ones calling loudly for bans on smoking, nuclear power plants, pesticides and silicone breast implants. Nor are they the editors of the newspapers or the news directors of the television stations that decide to give prominent play to these demands.
The leaders of most protests against pesticides or power plants and of most news organizations tend to be people with higher-than-average education and socioeconomic status, people who can afford a desire for what the late political scientist Aaron Wildavsky and social anthropologist Mary Douglas called “a sense of individual control over social forces”; they have enough of a stake in the world that they want to be absolutely sure they live long enough to enjoy it.
Among activists, “this want is so imperious that their demands tend to be ‘non-negotiable,’ ” Wildavsky and Douglas said in their book “Risk and Culture.”
Many forces in society--the media, the government, special interest groups, the scientific community itself--cater to and exploit that zeal, even when it clearly runs contrary to good science, good government and good journalism.
To get reelected, most politicians pass laws and fund programs that address their constituents’ fears rather than trying to persuade the body politic that common sense and medical research clearly demonstrate that a particular “risk” is virtually no risk at all.
Special interest pressure groups contribute significantly to that process. The environmental movement awakened Americans--and American politicians--to many serious problems, says Gregg Easterbrook, a contributing editor at Newsweek and the author of a forthcoming book on the environment. Because of these efforts, Easterbrook says, air and water pollution and toxic emissions by industry have all decreased, and ocean-dumping of sludge has been outlawed.
But Easterbrook argues that the continuing “institutional need on the part of the environmental movement to promote doomsday as a concept” has led to continuing panic campaigns that often ignore “observed facts of the natural world” in favor of political goals that are not always rationally defensible.
A doomsday scenario is “a much better fund-raiser than guarded optimism,” Easterbrook says.
Even scientists are not immune to issuing doomsday scenarios.
“Often scientists hype and build up their own findings (to get) . . . more funding,” says Dr. Kenneth Olden, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
Too often, reporters uncritically accept what they’re told by scientists.
“Science journalism is where political journalism was before Watergate,” says Sharon Begley, a senior writer who covers science and the environment for Newsweek. “We are still too in awe of our sources. . . . We succumb to the fallacy that an academic does not come to an issue with the same biases or prejudices as someone whose salary is paid by” a chemical company or an environmental group.
“Ideology can be as strong an influence as money, if not stronger,” Begley says, and journalists are wrong to think scientists are purely objective, searching for “Truth with a capital T. That’s one of the most pernicious fallacies we as journalists can buy into and our readers or viewers tend to be duped into.”
Moreover, the media often fail to accurately communicate to the public the inherent limitations on science, that science is just “an approximation” of reality at a given point in time, subject to constant revision, says Dianne Dumanoski, a longtime environment writer for the Boston Globe who is now on leave to write a book about the effect of artificial chemicals on fetal development.
With scientists being increasingly called upon to make policy recommendations these days, the line between pure science and political advocacy can be blurred, as U.S. News & World Report pointed out in December in a lengthy story debunking several doomsday myths about environmental hazards.
A few other news organizations--including ABC News, the New York Times and the New Republic--have carried similar stories in recent years, and other publications--the Washington Post, Science magazine, the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune among them--have also published stories critically examining the conjunction of science and risk in society. Fumento examined the issue at considerable and provocative length in his 1993 book “Science Under Siege.”
But these are isolated examples. Risk is “a very hard subject to cover well, and by and large, I don’t think we do cover it terribly well,” says Nicholas Wade, science and health editor of the New York Times.
Journalists face many problems in trying to cover risk issues, and--like Pogo in the old Walt Kelly comic strip--they often find that “the enemy is us.” In earlier years, journalists were often faulted for ignoring risks, especially in the work place; now they’re faulted for overstating risks.
But risk issues are among the most complex to cover. They often involve not just science and medicine but politics and economics as well. Although some major news organizations have trained, experienced specialists covering risk areas, most do not.
In a survey last year of 512 print and broadcast journalists nationwide, 72% told the Los Angeles-based Foundation for American Communications that, in general, reporters lack the training and background necessary to properly cover stories on technical environmental issues.
Social scientists Eleanor Singer and Phyllis Endreny, in their 1993 book “Reporting on Risk,” examined 42 news stories on risk and found that 76% had two or more errors.
Because risk issues are often so technical and so complicated, even experienced reporters with specialized training may oversimplify issues--unintentionally, while hurtling from deadline to deadline, or even intentionally, if only to have an impact on their first readers: their editors.
“Editors like conflict, drama, strong views,” say Jim Detjen of the Philadelphia Inquirer, president of the Society for Environmental Journalists. “Very often, many journalists know that to get a story on the front page or to get their editors interested in giving them time to pursue a story,” they have to overplay those components.
When an editor’s desire for a strong story combines with a reporter’s desire to be on Page 1, the result is not a pretty sight.
Dumanoski of the Boston Globe recalls “a big argument with a top editor at the Globe, on deadline” about a story in which a Harvard University scientist said there was “a very high probability” of a large hole in the ozone layer in the Northern Hemisphere before the end of the century.
Dumanoski says her editor told her the story would be worthy of Page 1 only if the scientist said there definitely would be a large hole; “high probability” wasn’t good enough to warrant Page 1.
Dumanoski thought the story was important and warranted Page 1.
She called the scientist back and “negotiated something that really wasn’t accurate . . . something much balder than what was true,” as she puts it now.
The story ran on Page 1.
In an effort to simplify complicated issues for readers, as well as for their editors, reporters often over simplify in other ways, allowing qualifying and delimiting statements of scientists to “fall by the wayside” amid overstated conclusions, says Boyce Rensberger, longtime science writer for the Washington Post.
Worse, reporters too often fail to put a given risk in context.
Suppose some new substance is said to have a one in 600,000 chance of giving someone cancer. The government might well ban such a substance. But given that one out of three Americans will be found to have some kind of cancer in their lifetime, shouldn’t the media make it clear that this additional risk is actually relatively slight?
Too often, the media fail to give readers and viewers that context. Nor do they point out that dire warnings in the past (about cranberries and sacharine, for example) have often proved needlessly alarmist--and that science moves slowly toward any conclusions.
“I try to put numbers and risk in perspective every time I write a story,” says Cristine Russell, a special health correspondent for the Washington Post, who spent a year studying risk while on an Alicia Patterson Foundation fellowship. “I try to find just the right modifiers and emphasize when the data are preliminary or uncertain, whether the source is highly reputable or new, whether it’s a large or small study, how long it will take for more research to come up with more definitive answers.”
Walt Bogdanich, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who works for ABC News, says most good reporters try to do what Russell suggests. The mistakes they make, he says, are “the inherent failings of the first rough draft of history,” as Philip Graham, then the publisher of the Washington Post, once described the daily newspaper.
“I don’t think health and science reporters are any different than other reporters,” says Bogdanich, who has reported often on scientific and medical issues. “We tend to go for the quick hit, the headlines, the news value as we see it . . . and we end up by failing to put in context. We end up exaggerating events. I’m troubled by it and always have been.”
But Bogdanich says reporters fail to put risks in perspective, “not necessarily because we’re bad people or we’re unintelligent people or uncaring people but because of time constraints and the pressures of what we do for a living. . . . We react too quickly, without thinking, in some cases.”
Baruch Fischhoff, a professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University and a frequent defender of the media, says, however, that media coverage of risk is “not always up to the standards found in other topic areas.”
“Most news organizations would not tolerate sports or business reporting by reporters who do not understand the subject,” he told Victor Cohn of the Washington Post for his book “Reporting on Risk.” “The same is not always true of . . . the technical and social dimensions of risk messages.”
Scientists say too many journalists who cover risk issues, in their zeal to beat the competition--and to provide the drama of conflict and what they see as the fairness of balance--often sacrifice context and perspective by going for predictable, controversial quotes from extremist sources.
Journalists want to “bracket the truth with experts or participants on either side” of any controversy, says Rob Stavins, who teaches environmental economics and public policy at Harvard. “The natural tendency, if you want to make sure that the truth lies somewhere within the range of what you’ve got, is to make those brackets as far apart as possible. My opinion is that’s one of the motivations, in addition to the drama motivation, for most often quoting and relying upon what I call the ‘flamethrowers’ on either side of the spectrum.”
Journalists would probably serve their readers better, Stavins says, if they narrowed that range considerably, focusing on opinions from the responsible middle and eliminating the extremes.
But even in the middle, there’s almost invariably more than one opinion, and reporters are trained to present both sides. On risk issues, that presents a problem.
“The journalist’s model of the world (is) that there are the good guys and the bad guys and there’s two sides to everything,” says Clarence (Terry) Davies, director of the Center for Risk Management at Resources for the Future, a Washington think tank that specializes in environmental issues. “That’s pretty distorting in terms of a lot of environmental stories, I think. There aren’t two sides to most environmental stories; there’s usually seven sides or 15 sides. . . . Sometimes there’s only one side.”
The latter point is one Larry Stammer of the Los Angeles Times finds particularly unsettling.
“We don’t have the expertise to say that their science is wrong or someone else’s science is right,” says Stammer, a former environment reporter and political writer who now writes about religion. “So . . . what papers tend to do is give equal play to both . . . sides, even though one side doesn’t have a whole lot of credibility. Using the political model, we do a ‘he said, she said’ story.”
John Kenney, chairman of the commission that investigated the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, had experience with this syndrome, and as a result, he said he expected some day to read a newspaper story that began:
“Three scientists by the names of Galileo, Newton and Einstein have concluded that the Earth is round. However, the New York Times has learned authoritatively that professor John Doe has exclusive evidence that the Earth is flat.”
Perhaps the biggest--and most inevitable--flaw in media coverage of risk is the tendency for bad news to drive out good news. Risk--hazard--is, by definition, bad news.
Robert Samuelson, in Newsweek, and Richard Harwood, in the Washington Post, have recently criticized this tendency of the news media to be compulsive bad news bearers, especially in their coverage of risk.
Harwood ticked off several examples of “good news” about risk, then said: “There’s plenty to cheer about out there. We just don’t print much of it. It’s neither culturally nor commercially correct in the news business.”
Thus, when the Center for Science in the Public Interest issued periodic reports over the last year saying that Italian food, Chinese food, Mexican food and movie theater popcorn are unhealthy, their findings made Page 1 headlines and television news programs.
Media coverage of the popcorn story was especially heavy.
“You got the impression from the wildly excited press coverage that after a movie ends the ushers have to use forklifts to clear the bloated corpses out of the theater,” wrote syndicated columnist Dave Barry.
But on June 27--two months after the popcorn report, three weeks before the assault on chili rellenos--the center announced that it wanted consumers to know that “there’s also good news in the world of food and nutrition.” The center released a report on “Top 10 Foods for Healthy Summer Fun"--brand-name lists for everything from frozen yogurt to fat-free tortilla chips.
A search of databases shows that not one major television news program, not one major magazine and only one major newspaper used the story.
That paper, the Dallas Morning News, gave it two paragraphs at the bottom of a health roundup on Page 3 of its third section.
Jacci Cenacveira of the Times editorial library assisted with the research for this series.
The Cancer Threat
What scientists say are the most likely causes of cancer in humans do not necessarily end up on the evening newscast or in the morning paper. Here is a look at cancer from two viewpoints:
The Scientific Perspective
Percentage of scientists who say the following cause cancer: Smoking tobacco: 96% Sunlight: 54% Diet: 52% Secondhand smoke: 42% Chemicals in the workplace: 37% Sexually transmitted diseases: 28% Pesticides and herbicides: 26% Air and water pollution: 26% Infectious diseases: 14% Drugs: 13% Food additives, preservatives: 10% Medical radiation: 10% Chemicals at home: 7% Nuclear power: 7% NOTE: The survey was done with 401 randomly selected current members of the American Assn. for Cancer Research.
The Media Blitz
The number of times the following cancer causes were referred to in news stories, 1972-1992: Man-made chemicals: 498 Tobacco: 292 Food additives: 273 Heredity: 272 Drugs: 268 Pollution: 222 Man-made radiation: 212 Infection: 200 Pesticides: 194 Asbestos: 163 NOTE: News organizations surveyed included ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts; Time, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal.
Source: Center for Media and Public Affairs