Caught between complexity and urgency: Responsible media reporting in an age of uncertainty

Speech Published 03 Apr 2009 Last modified 13 Apr 2011
Presentation by Prof. Jacqueline McGlade, Executive Director, European Environment Agency at the conference "the Media and the Environment", Lisbon, 2 April 2009

The EEA report Late Lessons from Early Warnings: the precautionary principle 1896–2000, provided us with the idea and the impetus for this conference. The report describes the way that scientific early warnings about X-rays, asbestos, the ozone hole, acid rain, mad cow disease and other hazards that we now know a lot about, were not acted on, resulting in much avoidable harm.

We did not focus on the role of the media in these stories but it was clear that the media was prominent at every stage, from reporting the first early warnings to persuading the late sceptics, until economic and political obstacles to change were overcome — after some 30 to 100 years of scientific controversy and political inaction. 

Three of these stories raise many of the issues that we will discuss at this conference.

In the 1890s a New York journalist, John Dennis, campaigned for regulations to protect both radiologists and patients from the new medical wonder tool, the X-ray, which was then only a few years old. He was joined by a Boston dentist, William Rollins, who published over 200 scientific papers in the medical and radiological press in the early 1900s urging doctors to use minimum X-ray exposures via the practical measures he proposed.

Their calls met decades of denial and indifference, despite the early evidence of arms and fingers that had to be amputated, and the loss of hair that followed shortly after high doses of radiation to the X-ray pioneers. Some X-ray scientists accused patients and X-ray workers of being “individually sensitive”, or claimed that, because they could not understand how the damage was caused by X rays, it must be caused by something else. Rollins recognised the power of the prevailing scientific paradigm to reject new evidence. He noted “the tyranny of old ideas as illustrated by the X light used in therapeutics”. That was in 1904. He anticipated by 20 years the observation of the Nobel prize-winning physicist, Max Plank that old scientific paradigms only die when their professors die.

200 deaths in British radiologists during the 1920s from was what was thought to be radiation-induced cancers helped to generate more media attention, especially after the death of the famous radiologist Ironside Bruce in 1921. His death prompted popular press articles about the need for better protection for patients and X-ray workers. The conservative scientific establishment responded in characteristic fashion: “ the scientific competency of  the press is less than its ability to write lurid prose” (Editorial, Roentgen Society, 1921).

But it was to be the 50s and 60s before most Europeans got protection from the regulations that John Dennis had called for in the previous century. 

By then a second round of hazards had emerged that was more complex. Much lower doses of X-rays to pregnant women in the 1940s and 50s doubled the rate of leukaemia in their children but evidence of harm took longer to appear and came on top of other causes of leukaemia. The science was therefore much harder to believe and to communicate convincingly. It too was fiercely opposed by the medical establishment of the day. Two decades passed before those exposures were reduced, along with the more frivolous but dangerous use of X-rays, such as for measuring children’s feet in shoe shops. 

The current controversies about possible cancers from the less powerful radiation from mobile phones and overhead power lines are characterized by similar argumentation:

  • there are individuals who are genetically predisposed to developing cancers in relation to radiation;
  • there are no agreed ways in which harm can be explained, even if the observations were true;
  • there is a clash of scientific paradigms between those who say that exposures have to be high enough to cause heating of biological tissues  and others who say that much lower doses can dangerously disturb sensitive cellular processes;
  • there could be other possible causes of the apparently excess cancers; 
  • and the uncertain statistical observations of some excess cancers in a complex multi-causal biological world may be mistaken.

Although these current arguments are very similar to those of X-ray story, both the complexities of the science, and the economic and political interests at stake, are now much greater.

These stories start with early warnings. At the other end comes the demise of the late sceptics and here too the media plays a key role. In 1982 a Channel 4 television documentary in the UK, called “Alice: a fight for life”, was watched by millions of people. The programme created widespread public concern and anger. Overnight it pushed politicians into long overdue action, leading to a ban on asbestos. 

The documentary had successfully humanised and dramatised the dry statistics of a deadly cancer called mesothelioma which can take 40 or 50 years to appear. It took another decade before the EU banned asbestos, 100 years after the first scientific early warning in 1898. We will now have to watch, over the next few decades, some 400,000 unstoppable asbestos deaths in Europe as a result of delays in eliminating exposures.  

And the conflict continues, with both the asbestos industry and public health campaigners using the media in Russia, Indian and elsewhere, repeating this tragic history. 

The middle part of the asbestos story unfolded relatively far from the public eye in the rooms of scientists and company doctors, and in scientific journals. For example, in 1955 Sir Richard Doll’s breakthrough study found that asbestos workers had 10 times the risk of lung cancer compared to the non-exposed. The findings were published in the British Journal of Industrial Medicine only after failed attempts by industry and then by the journal editor to stop Doll. However, this damning report was not covered in the mainstream British press.

The asbestos story was characterized by attempts to muzzle the early warning scientists; to avoid the use of clear words like cancer; to stop or suppress the publication of evidence of harm; and to pay for science that would exploit scientific uncertainty by “manufacturing doubt”, a strategy that tobacco and other industries later perfected. These features appear in many other late lesson stories. 

In 1974 another tragedy was starting to unfold. Early warning scientists announced a more complex threat, this time to both health and crop productivity and at a global level. Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), used in aerosols and refrigerants, were drifting up some 25 kilometres above our heads, remaining there for 50 or 100 years, while slowly damaging the ozone layer which normally filters out much dangerous solar radiation. 

The scientists, who much later received the Nobel prize for their observations, were initially treated with much scepticism, especially by the economic forces that stood to lose, at least  in the short term, if this evidence led to action against their products. The biggest manufacturer of CFCs, Du Pont, took a full page advertisement in the New York Times, to affirm that “should reputable  evidence show that some fluorocarbons cause a health hazard through depletion of the ozone layer we are prepared to stop production of the offending compounds”. (NYT June 30th 1975).

That evidence came ten years later when Joe Farman actually measured the thinning ozone layer. The Washington Post captured the complexity with the metaphor of an “ozone hole” and with graphic pictures from NASA satellites. These helped mobilize the political forces that signed the Montreal Protocol in 1987, which began the global phase out of CFCs and other ozone-depleting chemicals.

Delays in action on early warnings mean that the ozone hole will only finally be closed by about the middle of this century or even later. Such delays will cause unstoppable eye cataracts, skin cancers and crop productivity losses: a price our children will pay for our failure to use early warnings and precaution in minimizing these largely irreversible impacts. 

Of course, there are also false alarms. But these seem few and with some exceptions, such as the MMR vaccination story in the UK, they have had much less devastating effects than those instances when early warnings have been ignored.

These three stories of X-rays, asbestos and the ozone hole carry many of the elements that we need to discuss at this conference. These elements are again apparent in the stories of environmental tobacco, leaded petrol, electromagnetic fields, GMOs, collapsing bee colonies and climate change, which will feature in volume 2 of Late Lessons, due later this year.

These issues include:

  • the difficulties posed by shifting from simple, short-term, local and visible hazards whose main causes are easily identified, to long-term, less visible, sometimes global, and scientifically more complex hazards;
  • the  increasing potential for real and manufactured scientific doubt as scientific complexity increases, along with new uncertainties and increased awareness of our ignorance about dynamic, non-linear and inter-connected systems;
  • the lack of transparency about key assumptions and judgements in scientific evaluations that are responsible for many of the diverging conclusions about essentially the same knowledge;
  • the resulting difficulties of reporting responsibly on such issues, especially when the health, economic and political stakes are high;
  • the need to act on early evidence to avoid long-term and usually irreversible harm;
  • the harassment of early warning scientists and attempts to close down or suppress  controversial areas of research by those who don’t wish to hear inconvenient truths;
  • the  power of advertising on media messages and of its revenues on media editors and owners;
  • the ingenuity of reporters and editors who create compelling metaphors and images that can communicate complexities to the public and politicians;
  • and the countervailing power of rhetoric to overcome  the scientific messages: asbestos, for example,  was the “magic mineral”,  leaded petrol was the “Gift from God”, and all new technologies bring “progress” to civilization.

At the same time, the media world, like the scientific world, is now characterized by greater complexity and urgency. 

The proliferation of the World Wide Web and 24-hour news outlets, of scores of television and radio channels, and of personalised modes of receiving and delivering information and opinions has revolutionized the media through which complex science must pass to reach a multiplicity of publics. Meanwhile, budgets for blockbusting documentaries that can bring rapid political change have diminished, as have resources for in-depth investigative journalism.

Dumbing down of much of the media and the seemingly shortening attention span of audiences is reducing capacities for communicating complex science. And the “patient science” of relatively slow ecological and biological cycles can easily escape the attentions of fast news gatherers.

However, the problems arising from the new media technologies and configurations are accompanied by opportunities. For example, people with local and traditional knowledge, such as bee keepers, asbestos workers and indigenous peoples often experience and know about the reality of hazards well before the experts recognize them. They and citizen journalists can report on what’s happening in their communities using new means of communication to get their knowledge out to wider publics in ways that were not possible just a decade ago. For example, the EEA and Microsoft partnership - called Water Watch – is a web portal about the quality of bathing waters. It provides a two-way communication between the public and the Agency on the quality of beaches throughout Europe and those in the overseas territories. People can grade the beaches alongside the official blue flag status given by the national authorities and provide their own commentary. This can then be used in updating the EEAs assessments.

But the new circumstances of complexity and urgency in both science and the media raise key questions that will be debated over the next two days.

  • What happens when many of the traditional outlets that have brought early warnings to the public, such as liberal newspapers and independent broadcasting channels, have disappeared, as they are now doing, and at increasing speed?
  • How can the longer term interests of societies prevail when short-term private interests pervade both our sciences and the media?
  • How can early warning scientists and whistle-blowing journalists be encouraged and protected by societies whose interests are best served by honest, if sometimes mistaken, dissent?
  • How can the perspectives and values of different communities, scientists and stakeholders reach the public domain along with those of media owners and their editors?
  • When is there enough evidence to justify action to stop irreversible and widespread harm: reasonable certainty, balance of evidence, or scientific suspicion of risk?
  • Who should get the benefit of scientific doubt: consumer products or consumers and their children?
  • Should balanced reporting give the same attention to both early warning and late sceptic minorities? 
  • How can the quality of conventional science, citizen science and web information be assured?
  • Could there be more and better training for journalists and editors?
  • What is the social responsibility of media corporations?
  • And, given that complex biological, ecological and social systems do not permit reliable predictions of the future, how can we share in shaping scenarios that provide images of possible pathways to the futures we choose?

These are some of the questions that can be addressed at this conference and there will be others. We, the EEA and the Gulbenkian Foundation and the University of Lisbon, do not have the answers. But we hope that over the next two days all those involved here can work together to pose the right questions and identify some indications of answers to help guide future research and activities. 


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