Incomplete or imbalanced and alarmist information can lead directly to harmful decisions—like a pregnant mother who, to protect her unborn child, foregoes seafood because she is unaware of the potential cons and pros of eating certain species of fish. Fear of vaccines contributes to reduced immunization rates and the return of nearly eradicated diseases. Fear of processed milk leads some to choose raw milk despite the vastly increased likelihood of illness or death from pathogens. Moreover, selectively alarmist coverage can harm us just by making us worried. In a contest between stress and BPA or mercury, stress is far and away the greater risk (see Robert Sapolsky’s book, “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers,” which summarizes a lot of the research linking stress to a wide range of serious ailments). The more worried we are, the worse it is for our health. The stress from alarmism is a risk all by itself.
Coverage of the potential dangers of modern technological and scientific progress, with minimized mention of the associated benefits, also contributes to mistrust about progress and science themselves. Genetically modified food, nuclear power and other applications of radiation, new products for the pharmaceutical industry - they all have tradeoffs. But when we hear more about the risks than the benefits, the dangers focus our attention. Attention may be good for readership, and ratings, and getting your story on the front page or to lead the newscast, but it’s not the sort of journalism that helps us make informed choices.
And journalism that emphasizes that “The Sky is Falling!” sends us running for the safety of the cave. Worried, we buy guns, live in gated communities, and fear “others.” We raise our kids differently, apprehensive about the false “epidemic” of child abduction. And we demand government protection from the things that scare us (billions spent on hazardous waste) rather than from some things that may not sound the same level of media alarms but which threaten us much more (radon).
Most newsrooms have policies, formal or informal, about doing no harm. TV stations, for example, don’t do live reports of everybody on a ledge threatening to jump to their death, for fear of inviting copycats. Responsible news organizations that learn of things that might compromise national security, or put people or troops at risk, are circumspect with that information.
This sense of responsibility must expand. While we need the news media to keep us informed of the dangers we face, coverage of risk-related subjects has to do a more complete and honest job of reporting the scary facts and key information that may not be as alarming, or may even be reassuring. The risks of modern living are legitimately scary enough on their own without having selectively worrisome coverage feed our growing fear of progress and modern living, which, along with its risks, also offers great benefits.
[Disclosure: David Ropeik was an environmental reporter for a TV station in Boston for twenty-two years and a board member of the Society of Environmental Journalism for nine. He was subsequently the press officer for a group of Harvard scientists that led an independent panel review of BPA science, which found that the fears at that time (2004) weren’t supported by the bulk of the evidence, and he wrote the press release for that study. He is now a consultant in risk perception and risk management for a wide range of government, corporate, academic, and civic organizations worldwide. A full list of his clients is available at www.dropeik.com. He is also founder of the program “Media Coverage and Risk”, an in-house training program for newsrooms, and author of “How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts.”]