Environmental journalism: A little knowledge is dangerous

Published February 1, 2000

“With an impressive-sounding name for your environmental organization, you can scare people out of a lot of money,” wrote columnist Paul Harvey in 1996. “By threatening global warming, ozone holes, acid rain, vanishing species, disappearing forests, and unsafe drinking water, these organizations merchandise fear very profitably.”

Paul Harvey is right: Environmentalism is big business these days. According to Jonathan Adler of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, environmental groups have annual revenues of nearly $500 million a year, with at least 12 groups having annual budgets of $20 million or more. A network of left-leaning foundations contributes approximately 20 percent of total revenues, membership dues and individual contributions amount to about half, and corporations and merchandising agreements account for the rest.

The Pew Charitable Trusts named anti-chlorine activist Theo Colburn one of its “Pew Fellows” and paid her $150,000. Other Pew Fellows who are notoriously anti-industry include Deonella Meadows, coauthor of the 1972 report The Limits to Growth and Reed Noss, architect of the “Wildlands Project” to remove any human presence from approximately half the territory of the continental U.S.

Pew and other leftist foundations are pouring millions of dollars into the Environmental Information Center, recently renamed the National Environmental Trust, to “educate the public” about the threat posed to the world’s ecological system by corporate America. Pew has also created the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, led by former Clinton Administration treaty negotiator Eileen Claussen, to act as a public relations and marketing firm for the most alarmist voices in the global warming debate.

Where are the media?

Unpopular products and industries are being lined up for ruinous assault by an unholy trinity of trial lawyers, radical environmentalist and “public interest” groups pimping for funds, and cynical elected officials pimping for votes. The media have joined forces with the most anti-industry elements of the unholy trinity, giving them top billing in newspapers and magazines and treating even their most extreme spokesmen as qualified experts.

The media are a big part of the problem, misreporting the facts of most health and environment stories either out of ignorance of scientific facts, gullibility, or anti-business bias.

Alan Caruba, a science journalist and media watchdog, made the following four observations about media coverage of environmental and health scares:

  • Over the past 25 years, environmental reporters have generally ignored scientific opinions that differed from those of environmentalists.
  • Few journalists have a scientific background, and thus they are easily manipulated by ecological activists.
  • Environmental groups have mounted an effective and well-funded PR campaign that started in 1970 and continues today.
  • The media’s urge to build circulation and ratings often makes them willing to present ecological scare stories as dramatically as possible.

To understand how poorly the press cover these issues, consider a typical issue of a typical big-city newspaper: The October 12, 1998 issue of the Chicago Sun-Times.

  • The lead story on the front page was titled “Suburbs Top Polluters” with the provocative subhead, “Factories outside city produce most toxins.” (Mistake #1: Toxicity can be determined only by knowing exposure levels, which is not part of the EPA data that formed the basis of the article.) The article refers to “emissions of cancer-causing chemicals.” (Mistake #2: The EPA data cover all “known or suspected” carcinogens, with most such determinations based on largely discredited maximum tolerable dose experiments on laboratory mice.)
  • The article quotes three “authorities” on the subject: Tom Nathan of the National Environmental Trust, Robert Ginsburg with the Midwest Center for Labor Research, and Marian Brynes, executive director of the Southeast Environmental Task Force. (Mistakes #3, #4, and #5: Nathan is a radical environmentalist funded by the leftist Pew Charitable Trust; Ginsburg’s expertise is labor law, not health; and Brynes is the leader of a NIMBY organization formed to oppose siting a municipal waste incinerator in her neighborhood.)
  • Two business spokespersons were also quoted apologizing for their companies’ performances and promising to do better. Missing from the article were any quotations attributed to genuine scientists; any criticism of EPA’s junk science approach to identifying “potential carcinogens”; any questioning of the meaning of data released under the Toxic Release Inventory program; and any comment on the costs versus the benefits of reducing “toxic” emissions to zero.

The Chicago Sun-Times is not a poorly written or edited paper. Its coverage of health and science issues is probably about average. The article described here follows sound journalism rules of giving “the other side” an opportunity to reply to charges. But this is more than offset by the writers’ ignorance of the underlying science and of the motivation and financing of the groups being covered, and of the role they are playing in laying the groundwork for a legal attack on yet another industry.

Journalists know they are failing. According to Caruba, “a study by the Foundation for American Communications, conducted by American Opinion Research, concluded that only 3 percent of the journalists surveyed considered the overall quality of environmental coverage to be very good. That’s 97 percent who rated it fair to poor.”

What’s to be done?