Worried about Endocrine Disruptors or Mercury? Expert Argues that Coverage of Health Risks Often Fail to Tell Us What We Really Need to Know

In a post today, risk communication expert and AoE guest contributor David Ropeik focuses on how journalists covering common health risks such as mercury in fish or endocrine disruptors in plastics often "fail to tell us what we need to know to make informed choices for ourselves and for society."  His piece is re-posted with permission from the Columbia Journalism Review's Observatory blog, one of the top outlets for tracking trends and issues in science and environmental journalism--Matthew Nisbet

There is a hidden danger in this modern world of unprecedented plenty and healthier, longer lives: our growing fears about the modern technologies that make our longer and healthier lives possible.

There are indeed real risks that accompany the benefits of industrial chemistry, mass agriculture, nuclear power, etc. But the news media tend to report those risks in a way that emphasizes the most worrisome aspects, while downplaying facts and quotes that would put the risk in a fuller, but less frightening light. Some recent coverage of Bisphenol A (BPA) presents one example of the potential damage that can come from coverage of risk that fails to tell us what we need to know to make informed choices for ourselves and for society.In mid-October, the Canadian government declared BPA a toxin. In less than twenty-four hours, The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Associated Press, Reuters, and most major news sources had reported the story. But just a few weeks earlier, the European Food Safety Agency, after reviewing 800 of the most recent studies on BP—the same science the Canadians looked at—had said that the Total Daily Intake threshold they had set in 2006 was still sufficient to protect public health. Essentially, the Europeans found that low-dose exposure to BPA is not harmful, a different view than the Canadians took. (One EFSA panelist agreed with the group’s overall decision, but suggested making the Total Daily Intake threshold temporary, pending future research.)

Guess who carried that story. Practically nobody. Not The New York Times, or The Washington Post, or The Associated Press. Reuters did, but practically none of the major news organizations that brought us the worrisome news from Canada reported on the same story when the news about BPA was reassuring. (An article in The Washington Post that included a brief, buried quote mentioning the EFSA study a month after it came out doesn’t even come to close to having “covered it.”)

There is good reason to worry about BPA and endocrine disrupting chemicals in general, and I’m proud to say I covered these stories several times back in my days as a daily environmental journalist in Boston, before the issue of endocrine disruption had caught on. But BPA is just one example of a larger trend—an alarmist, “if-it-scares-it-airs” imbalance in the way the news media cover risk stories in general.

Here’s another example. A 2007 study in The Lancet, “Maternal Fish Consumption Benefits Children's Development,” on the risks and benefits of pregnant women eating seafood, found that the fats in the fish do more good for the cognitive health of the developing fetus than the harm—to the cognitive health of the developing fetus—done by mercury in the seafood. In other words, mothers-to-be who avoided eating seafood to protect their fetuses from mercury did more harm to the brains of their developing children than if they had eaten the fish.

How did The New York Times, The Associated Press, or most of the other major news sources around the world cover The Lancet study? They didn’t! There are lots of important facets to the mercury story. The public never heard about this one. How are pregnant moms supposed to make an informed decision equipped with only the scary half of the story? What damage might such selective coverage do—real damage, possibly greater damage than the mercury—to the cognitive development of unborn children, the very harm that restrictions on mercury are intended to prevent?

The selective coverage of the EFSA and Canadian developments regarding BPA and the near-total neglect of the Lancet study are clear failures of journalism, and should be unacceptable to news consumers who want to know enough to make a reasonably informed judgment. But this isn’t about mercury, or BPA, or any specific risk, so much as it’s about the harm such coverage can do.

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

[Hundreds of studies associate stress with increased cardiovascular disease, the number one killer in the developed world, and increased likelihood and severity of a wide range of diseases, including cancer, since chronic stress weakens the immune system. A lot of that research is summarized in “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers” by Robert Sapolsky. Is there any research, etc. that we could link to in support of this statement?].

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 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 in how we live our lives. Worried, we buy guns, and live in gated communities, and fear “others”, and raise our kids differently for fear of the false ‘epidemic’ of child abduction, and 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.--Guest post by David Ropeik, reposted with permission from the Observatory Blog at the Columbia Journalism Review.

[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 scientists at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis 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.”]

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.