Posted: November 10, 2001
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Article SummaryThis EPA booklet has long been out-of-print. It predates my articulation of the hazard-versus-outrage distinction, but contains much of the thinking that went into that distinction. In fact every time I reread this it reminds me of principles and examples I ought to reinstate in my presentations.

Explaining Environmental Risk

TSCA Assistance Office, Office of Toxic Substances
U.S. Enivronmental Protection Agency, November 1986 (booklet)

Dealing With The Media

1. Environmental risk is not a big story.

The mass media are not especially interested in environmental risk. Reporters do care whether or not an environmental situation is risky; that’s what makes it newsworthy. But once the possibility of hazard is established – that is, once someone asserts the risk on the record – the focus turns to other matters: how did the problem happen, who is responsible for cleaning it up, how much will it cost, etc. Assessing the extent of the risk strikes most journalists as an academic exercise. The reporter’s job is news, not education; events, not issues or principles. And the news is the risky thing that has happened, not the difficult determination of how risky it actually is.

In an emergency, of course, the extent of the acute risk is the core of the story; radio reporters in particular want to know first and foremost whether to tell listeners to stay indoors, to evacuate, not to drink the water, etc. But the media don’t especially want to know the ins-and-outs of risk assessment, the details of how great the risk is likely to be, how sure the experts are, or how they found out. If the story is important enough, these technical details merit a follow-up, a sidebar on the third or fourth day – but few stories are important enough.

The typical news story on environmental risk, in other words, touches on risk itself, while it dwells on more newsworthy matters. In 1985 newspaper editors in New Jersey were asked to submit examples of their best reporting on environmental risk, and the articles were analyzed paragraph by paragraph. Only 32 percent of the paragraphs dealt at all with risk. Nearly half of the risk paragraphs, moreover, focused on whether a substance assumed to be risky was or was not present (e.g. is there dioxin in the landfill), leaving only 17 percent of the paragraphs that dealt directly with riskiness itself (e.g. how hazardous is dioxin). In a parallel study, reporters were asked to specify which information they would need most urgently in covering an environmental risk emergency. Most reporters chose the basic risk information, saving the details for a possible second-day story. What happened, how it happened, who’s to blame, and what the authorities are doing about it all command more journalistic attention than toxicity during an environmental crisis.

The nature of the crisis determines how much stress the media put on risk as opposed to other issues. Reporters know, for example, that a chemical spill is a risk story, and at the scene of a spill they will keep asking about toxic effects even after they are told the chemical is benign and inert. A fire story, on the other hand, automatically raises questions about how the fire started, how much damage was done, who turned in the alarm, and the like; many reporters won’t realize unless told that a fire in a battery factory or a supermarket warehouse is a toxic event. But even when reporters understand that environmental risk is a key element of the crisis, their appetite for risk information is strong but easily sated; they want to know badly, but they don’t want to know much.

And when there is no crisis? The extent of a chronic risk is newsworthy only when events make it so – for example, when a court battle or a regulatory action hinges on a disputed risk assessment. Sources wishing to “sell” a chronic risk story to the media must therefore work to make it newsworthy. Give it a news peg – that is, make something happen that reporters can cover. Make it interesting. Build the case for its importance. Provide a prop worth focusing a camera on. But expect only partial success; reporters flock to the scene of a crisis, but they have to be seduced into covering chronic risk.

Among the greatest environmental risks in New Jersey is indoor radon contamination. Because it is new and serious, it received considerable media attention in 1985 and early 1986. Then the coverage began to slip. The easy news pegs were over: the discovery of the problem, the first home in the state with a super-high reading, the passage of radon legislation. With no “radon industry” to fight back, the conflict that journalism feeds on has been conspicuously missing from the radon story. Radon is more a health problem and a housing problem than an environmental controversy, and its coverage is correspondingly muted. And radon at least has the “advantage” of cancer, the disease we love to hate. Imagine its low visibility if it gave people emphysema instead.

2. Politics is more newsworthy than science.

The media’s reluctance to focus on risk for more than a paragraph or two might be less of a problem if that paragraph or two were a careful summary of the scientific evidence. It seldom is. In fact, the media are especially disinclined to cover the science of risk. Most of the paragraphs devoted to risk in the New Jersey study consisted of unsupported opinion – someone asserting or denying the risk without documentation. Only 4.2 percent of the paragraphs (24 percent of the risk paragraphs) took an intermediate or mixed or tentative position on the extent of the risk. And only a handful of the articles told readers what standard (if any) existed for the hazard in question, much less the status of research and technical debate surrounding the standard.

The media’s focus on the politics of risk rather than the science of risk is most visible in the sources relied upon in risk coverage. In the New Jersey study, 57 percent of the sources cited were government, with state government (22 percent) leading the pack. Industry captured 15 percent of the paragraphs; individual citizens and advocacy groups were cited in 7 percent each. Uninvolved experts such as academics – those least likely to have an axe to grind, most likely to have an intermediate opinion and a technical basis for it – were cited in only 6 percent of the paragraphs. Of course sources from government, industry, and environmental groups may also have scientific rationales for their judgments, and “experts” are not always neutral. Still, it is important that the media get their risk information from people who are directly involved in the news event; only occasionally do they seek out uninvolved experts for guidance on the extent of the risk.

Trying to interest journalists in the abstract issues of environmental risk assessment is even tougher than trying to get them to cover chronic risk; abstract issues are not the meat of journalism. Yet the public needs to understand abstractions like the uncertainty of risk assessments, the impossibility of zero risk, the debatable assumptions underlying dose-response curves and animal tests. Where possible, it helps to embed some of these concepts in your comments on hot breaking stories – though reporters and editors will do their best to weed them out. When there is no breaking story, try to sell your favorite reporter on a feature on the fight over how conservative risk assessment ought to be. Emphasize that the problem underlies many of the stories he or she is covering. But understand why you will have only partial success, why the science of risk is inevitably less newsworthy than the politics of risk.

3. Reporters cover viewpoints, not “truths.”

Journalism, like science, attempts to be objective, but the two fields define the term very differently. For science, objectivity is tentativeness and adherence to evidence in the search for truth. For journalism. on the other hand, objectivity is balance. In the epistemology of journalism, there is no truth (or at least no way to determine truth); there are only conflicting claims, to be covered as fairly as possible, thus tossing the hot potato of truth into the lap of the audience.

Imagine a scale from 0 to 10 of all possible positions on an issue. Typically, reporters give short shrift to 0, 1, 9, and 10; these views are too extreme to be credible, and are covered as “oddball” if they are covered at all. (You may think some pretty extreme viewpoints get respectful media attention – but you haven’t met the people reporters decide not to quote.) Reporters also pay relatively little attention to 4, 5, and 6. These positions are too wishy-washy to make good copy; how do you build a story out of “further research is needed?” And sources with intermediate positions are unlikely to be heavily involved in the issue, certainly unlikely to seek media attention. Most of the news, then, consists of 2’s and 3’s and 7’s and 8’s, in alternating paragraphs if the issue is hot, otherwise in separate stories as each side creates and dominates its own news events. Objectivity to the journalist thus means giving both sides their chance, and reporting accurately what they had to say. It does not mean filling in the uninteresting middle, and it certainly does not mean figuring out who is right. Journalists who insist on trying to figure out who is right are encouraged to become columnists ... or to leave.

If a risk story is developing and you have a perspective that you feel has not been well covered, don’t wait to be called. You won’t be. And you don’t need to wait. Reporters are busy chasing after the sources they have to talk to, and listening to the sources who want to talk to them. If you’re in the former category – if you’re safety manager at a plant that just experienced an uncontrolled release, for example – reporters will find their way to you, like it or not. Otherwise, rather than suffer in silence, become one of the relatively few experts who keep newsroom telephone numbers in their rolodex. You will find reporters amazingly willing to listen, to put you in their rolodexes, to cover your point of view along with all the others. Insofar as you can, try to be a 3 or a 7 – that is, a credible exponent of an identifiable viewpoint. Don’t let yourself be pushed to a position that is not yours, of course, but recognize that journalism doesn’t trust 0’s and 10’s, and has little use for 5’s.

In deciding whether to brave the considerable risks of media exposure, bear in mind that the story will be covered, whether or not you arrange to be included. News items are allotted media attention to the extent that journalists see them as important and interesting. Then the search begins for information to fill the vacuum – preferably new, solid, comprehensible information that reflects an identifiable point of view, but if there’s not enough of that to fill the time or space that the story “deserves,” reporters will scrounge for angles to make up the difference. The result can be an enlightening feature on the problems of technical prediction, but it’s more likely to be a “color story” – the fears of bystanders, the views of ideologues, the speculations of spokespeople, the history of mismanagement. Environmental risk stories often turn into political stories in part because political content is more readily available than technical content. Experienced sources work at filling the vacuum.

Although journalists tend not to believe in Truth-with-a-capital-T, they believe fervently in facts. Never lie to a reporter. Never guess. If you don’t know, say you don’t know. (But expect reporters to ask why you don’t know.) If you don’t know but can find out later, do so, and get back to the reporter as soon as possible, remembering that journalistic deadlines are measured in minutes, not months. If you know but can’t tell, say you can’t tell, and explain why. If you know but can’t manage to say it in English, find someone who can. Reporters do not expect you to be neutral; in fact, they assume that you probably have an axe to grind, and prefer that you grind it visibly. They do expect you to grind it with integrity.

4. The risk story is simplified to a dichotomy.

The media see environmental risk as a dichotomy; either the situation is hazardous or it is safe. This is in part because journalism dichotomizes all issues into sides to be balanced. But there are other reasons for dichotomizing risk. (1) It is difficult to find space for complex, nuanced, intermediate positions in a typical news story, say 40 seconds on television or 15 short paragraphs in a newspaper. (2) Virtually everyone outside his or her own field prefers simplicity to complexity, precision to approximation, and certainty to tentativeness. As Senator Edmund Muskie complained to an aide when the experts kept qualifying their testimony “on the other hand”: “Find me an expert with one hand.” (3) Most of the “bottom lines” of journalism are dichotomies – the chemical release is either legal or illegal, people either evacuate or stay, the incinerator is either built or not built. Like risk managers, the general public is usually asked to make yes-or-no decisions, and journalists are not wrong to want to offer information in that form.

Reporters are accustomed to the fact that technical sources invariably hedge, that nothing is ever “proved.” They see this as a kind of slipperiness. Someone can always be found to advocate a discredited position (the tobacco industry has plenty of experts); no one wants to go too far out on a limb in case new evidence points in a different direction; researchers in particular like to leave the issue open so they can justify more research. Pinning down evasive sources is a finely honed journalistic skill. In terms of our 0-to-10 scale, reporters spend a fair amount of time trying to get 5-ish sources to make clear-cut 3 or 7 statements.

Sources, especially technical sources, greatly resent the pressure from journalists to dichotomize and simplify. The dichotomization of risk distorts the reality that nothing is absolutely safe or absolutely dangerous, and polarizes “more-or-less” disagreements into “yes-or-no” conflicts. And oversimplification of any sort can mislead the audience and damage the reputation of the source. But recognize that journalists must simplify what they cover. If you refuse to simplify what you say, the reporter will try to do the job for you (at great risk to accuracy) or will turn to a more cooperative source.

The most qualified person to simplify your views is you. Decide in advance what your main points are, and stress them consistently and repetitively, even if you have to hook them onto your answers to irrelevant questions. Leave out the technical qualifiers that your colleagues might insist on but the general public doesn’t need to know (but leave in the qualifiers that really affect the bottom line). Stay away from jargon, and explain the technical terms you can’t avoid. Check to make sure the reporter understands what you are saying; if the reporter looks glassy-eyed or starts frantically taking down every word, back up and start over.

When you explain the significance of a toxic substance to reporters, try to avoid the “is it there or not” dichotomy, which can so easily alarm people about tiny concentrations. On the other hand, don’t expect reporters to sit still for a dissertation on uncertainty in dose-response curves. Your best bet, when you can, is to specify the amount involved, then set it against some standard of comparison, ideally a government exposure standard. This is still a dichotomy, of course; it leaves the misimpression that exposures just under the standard are perfectly safe while exposures just over are deadly. But as dichotomies go, “over or under” is preferable to “there or not.”

If you want to fight the journalistic tendency to dichotomize risk, fight it explicitly, asserting that the issue is not “risky or not” but “how risky.” Recognizing that intermediate positions on risk are intrinsically less dramatic and more complex than extreme positions, work especially hard to come up with simple, clear, interesting ways to express the middle view. Even so, expect reporters to insist on knowing “which side” you come down on with respect to the underlying policy dichotomy.

5. Reporters try to personalize the risk story.

Perhaps nothing about media coverage of environmental risk so irritates technical sources as the media’s tendency to personalize. “Have you stopped drinking it yourself?” “Would you let your family live there?” Such questions fly in the face of the source’s technical training to keep oneself out of one’s research, and they confuse the evidentiary requirements of policy decisions with the looser ones of personal choices. But for reporters, questions that personalize are the best questions. They do what editors are constantly asking reporters to do: bring dead issues to life, make the abstract concrete, focus on real people facing real decisions. Personalizing also forces the source to dichotomize, to make the same “yea” or “nay” decision the reader or viewer must make.

In a sense, experts and policy-makers work at a different level of analysis than reporters and the public. As an EPA study on the ethylene dibromide controversy noted, the agency wanted to talk about “macro-risk” (how many deaths will result from EDB contamination), while reporters kept asking about “micro-risk” (is it okay to eat the cake mix). The connections between macro-risk and micro-risk are difficult to draw. But for the individual citizen (faced with a cake mix, not a regulatory proposal), micro-risk is the issue, and reporters are not off-base in pushing technical sources to trace the connections. This is what personalizing questions are designed to do.

Knowing that reporters will inevitably ask personalizing questions, be prepared with answers. It is often possible to answer with both one’s personal views and one’s policy recommendations, and then to explain the difference if there is one. Or come with colleagues whose personal views are different, thus dramatizing the uncertainty of the data. If you are not willing (or not permitted) to acknowledge your own views, plan out some other way to personalize the risk, such as anecdotes, metaphors, or specific advice on the individual micro-risk level.

6. Claims of risk are usually more newsworthy than claims of safety.

On our 0-to-10 scale of risk assertions, the 3’s and 7’s share the bulk of the coverage, but they don’t share it equally. Risk assertions receive considerably more media attention than risk denials. Sometimes, in fact, the denials get even less coverage than the intermediate position, and reporters wind up “balancing” strong assertions of risk with bland statements that the degree of risk is unknown. In the New Jersey study, the proportions were 58 percent “risky,” 18 percent “not risky,” and 24 percent mixed or intermediate.

This is not bias, at least not as journalism understands bias. It is built into the concept of newsworthiness. If there were no allegation of risk, there would be no story. That something here might be risky is thus the core of the story; having covered it, the media give rather less attention to the counterbalancing notion that it might not be risky.

Other factors contribute to the tilt toward alarming news. One is the reporter’s desire to “build” the story, to come back with something that editors will want to showcase. (Reporters are much more interested in selling stories than in “selling newspapers.”) Another factor is the journalist’s preference for simple, graphic language, for “dump” rather than “land emplacement.” Risks sound riskier in simple language than in technical jargon. The factor closest to outright bias – but still distinguishable in the minds of journalists – is the media’s traditional skepticism toward those in authority. Most news is about powerful people, but along with the advantage of access government and industry must endure the disadvantage of suspicion. Environmental groups, by contrast, receive less attention from the media, but the attention is more consistently friendly.

On the other hand, the media are often and justly criticized for being too slow to alert the public to new environmental hazards. Considering that we rely largely on journalism as an “early warning system” for social problems on the horizon, this is a serious criticism. To gain a journalistic hearing, the first source to assert a particular risk must be reasonably credible, highly committed, and very lucky or very skilled. Almost invariably, new technologies start out with sweetheart coverage. The environmental controversy comes later, and only after the controversy is on the media agenda (and the technology is perhaps too deeply embedded to be dislodged) does the risky side of the argument catch up and pull ahead. This may be the worst of all possible patterns: to fail to warn us about risks when it’s early enough to make a societal go/no-go decision, then to frighten us deeply about risks after the decision has been made.

The principal exception to this pattern is emergencies. On a chronic risk story, the risk is the story. But a genuine emergency is by definition a big story; freed from the need to build the story, the reporter – especially the local reporter – may try to prevent panic instead. The President’s Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island conducted a content analysis of network, wire service, and major newspaper coverage during the first week of the 1979 accident. The Commission’s expectations of sensationalism were not confirmed. Of media passages that were clearly either alarming or reassuring in thrust, 60 percent were reassuring. If you stick to the technical issues, eliminating passages about inadequate flow of information and general expressions of fearfulness from local citizens, the preponderance of reassuring over alarming statements becomes 73 percent to 27 percent.

It didn’t seem that way at the time, of course. The information that something previously assumed to be safe may or may not be hazardous naturally strikes people as alarming, almost regardless of the amount of attention paid to the two sides; imagine reading this evening that scientists disagree over whether your favorite food is carcinogenic. Thus, sociologist Allan Mazur has found that public fearfulness about risky new technologies is proportional to the amount of coverage, not to its character. Media coverage of environmental risk alerts the public to risks it was otherwise unaware of, and thus increases the level of alarm even when it is balanced.

None of this is a rationale for avoiding the media. Even balanced media coverage may not reliably lead to balanced public opinion, but balanced coverage is preferable to unbalanced coverage. And the coverage is most likely to be balanced when sources on all sides are actively trying to get covered. People with knowledge and opinions to share perform a public service when they share them. What can you do to alert people to the risks of a new technology before it is too late? What can you do to redress the alarming imbalance once the media have begun to overdramatize the risks? Energetic public relations will help with both tasks, though in both cases you will be working against the grain.

7. Reporters do their jobs with limited expertise and time.

At all but the largest media, reporters covering environmental risk are not likely to have any special preparation for the assignment. Specialized environmental reporters are more the exception than the rule. Reporters covering an environmental emergency, for example, are mostly general-assignment reporters or police reporters, sent to the scene (or the phones) without time to scan the morgue, much less a technical handbook. And reporters tend to be science-phobic in the first place; the typical college journalism major takes only two science courses, and chooses those two carefully in an effort to avoid rigor. Though there are many exceptions, the average reporter approaches a technical story with trepidation (often hidden by professional bravado), expecting not to understand.

It doesn’t help that the average reporter covers and writes two to three stories a day. Here too there are exceptions, but most journalists are in a great hurry most of the time. They must make deadline not just on this story, but quite often on the story they will be covering after this one. Their goal, reasonably, is not to find out all that is known, but just to find out enough to write the story. Even if they knew more, they would not have the space or airtime to report more, nor do they believe their readers or viewers would have the interest or patience to absorb more.

Note also that irrespective of what journalistic superstars earn, the average reporter at a small daily newspaper takes home perhaps $13,000–$18,000 a year. Considering their incomes, journalists are shockingly competent and dedicated, but there are limits to how much competence and dedication a salary in the teens can purchase.

If the idea appeals to you, by all means offer to teach local journalists the basics of your field – but don’t expect general assignment reporters to find much time (or much stomach) for technical training they will use only a few times a year. A beat reporter who covers your issue full-time (if you are lucky enough to have one) is a much better candidate for technical training.

Better still, train yourself (and your colleagues and staff) in dealing with the media. Hiring effective public information specialists also helps, but reporters much prefer to talk to the people in charge and the people in the know. Especially during an emergency, press calls often go to the boss and the expert instead of the press office, so the boss and the expert should know how to talk to reporters. The annals of risk communication are full of stories of corporate managers and agency bureaucrats who shot themselves in the foot – and permanently damaged their organizations – because they hadn’t the least idea of how to deal with the media. Even the best communication skills can’t rescue a technical disaster, of course; who wants to handle the PR at Chernobyl or Bhopal? But inadequate communication skills can create a disaster that needn’t have been.

And adequate communication skills are not so hard to develop. All it takes is a little understanding of how the media work, a little training in dealing with reporters, and a little experience to smooth out the rough edges. Why, then, do so many managers, bureaucrats, and technical experts avoid all contact with the media? Because it’s risky.

Reporters don’t always understand what you’re telling them; they don’t always share your goals and values; they don’t always handle their jobs the way you want them to. In all these ways and many others, reporters may be different from the people you usually work with. And so working with reporters may sound like something less than an unalloyed pleasure.

Pleasure or not, the risks of ducking the media are far greater than the risks of working with them. Every news story about environmental risk is a collaboration between the journalists working on the story and the sources they talk to. There’s not too much you can do to change the nature of journalism or the performance of journalists. But you can understand them and figure out how to deal with them. By improving your own performance as a source, you can bring about a real improvement in media coverage of environmental risk.

Explaining Environmental Risk

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