Imagine a news story about a study that detected trace amounts of an industrial chemical in a popular food. The funder of that research claims it shows good news, that the doses of the chemical we’re exposed to aren’t high enough to worry about. But the funder was the chemical industry. That would set off all sorts of alarms about the honesty of that research, right? And it should, for you and for the reporter.
Now imagine a story about a study that detected trace amounts of that industrial chemical in popular foods or in drinking water, and the sponsors of that research claim that the findings show bad news, that the doses are high enough to pose a serious threat to human health. But that research was funded by environmental advocacy groups. Same situation, right? In both cases, organizations with points of view paid for research that produced findings that supported their point of view. That should prompt the same skepticism in you, and certainly in the reporter, right?
Well, it should. But often in cases like this, it doesn’t. As two recent examples illustrate, there is a dangerous double standard in news coverage of environmental and public health risks. Research funded by industry, playing down the risk, almost always prompts appropriate skepticism and challenge. Research by public health and environmental advocates, almost invariably playing up the risk, almost never does.
The first story, “The Chemicals in Your Mac and Cheese,” was published on The New York Times’ Well site on July 12. It reported that a study of 30 cheese products (solid cheese, cheese slices, the cheese powders that come in packets in macaroni-and-cheese boxes) detected trace levels of phthalates in all but one sample. Phthalates are industrial chemicals that have long been a subject of environmental groups’ alarms: Research suggests phthalates are endocrine disruptors — chemicals that interfere with our sensitive hormone system, potentially causing health problems in newborns and infants.
The story begins, “Potentially harmful chemicals that were banned from children’s teething rings and rubber duck toys a decade ago may still be present in high concentrations in your child’s favorite meal.” The language “high concentrations” is taken right out of the research funders’ summary. It needed to be questioned, but it wasn’t. The decade-old ban covers only products with phthalate concentrations of 0.1 percent or higher, and the highest concentration detected in the study samples was 0.0002523 percent.
Of course, one might fairly question the appropriateness of comparing chemical concentrations found in toys and those found in food, particularly given that some of the levels found in cheese actually exceed federal guidelines for things like bottled drinking water — arguably a more apples-to-apples comparison. But neither the advocates nor the journalist bothered to even make that case.
Moreover, when the story provides a link to the “study,” you are taken not to the research itself but to a summary written by an advocacy group, the Coalition for Safer Food Processing and Packaging. The summary starts with several paragraphs warning about the danger from phthalates, and only then describes the study itself. And the summary even includes a link to a website called “KleanUpKraft.” That fact alone should have been a red flag to The Times; it might have prompted the reporter to note that the funders of the research chose the cheese products to send to a lab for analysis, and out of the vast range of cheese products on the market, one-third of the samples they chose just happened to be Kraft products. While it’s true that Kraft is a major player in the global cheese market, this so-called research is a clear case of advocacy masquerading as science to advance a point of view. It cries out for some reasonable journalistic skepticism. The story contains none. (The Times did not respond to my requests for comment.)
Example two: the coverage of the Environmental Working Group’s release of a ZIP-code-searchable database of industrial chemicals that have been detected in trace amounts in public drinking water supplies. Widespread coverage ran under headlines like “Is Your Drinking Water Full of Dangerous Chemicals?,” “Is Your Drinking Water Safe?,” and “Cancer-Causing Pollutants Found in Mamaroneck Drinking Water, Study Shows.” All 18 versions of the story I read emphasized the EWG’s worrisome claim that many of these industrial chemicals have been associated with cancer and various other health problems.
While all the stories identified EWG as an environmental group, not one challenged its sweeping claims that at any dose at all, any of these chemicals can cause harm — even though in almost all cases, the levels were below state and/or federal safety levels. An advocate might reasonably point out that some of the chemicals measured are unregulated altogether, but the fact remains that the prima facie assumption of harm is a gigantic leap beyond what any respectable toxicologist or epidemiologist will tell you. Dose matters, not only to whether a substance causes any harm, but to what kind of harm, and how much. Yet every story merely accepted and repeated the worst-case interpretation of the science, the interpretation of an avowed advocate. Any reporter would surely have challenged this research had it been done by corporations claiming that it showed a reassuringly low potential for harm.
Why do journalists raise concern about the reliability of science when it’s financed by corporations and industry, but not when the funders are environmental or public health advocates — who of course are also trying to advance their cause, honorable as it may be? The likely explanation is trust. We instinctively trust those we perceive to be on our side, and mistrust those who aren’t. Environmental and public health groups may have their own agendas, but they are on our side, the public’s side. Corporations and industry are on their own side, and selfishly put their profit above public interest.
I made the same gullible mistakes during my years as an environmental reporter, for the same reason. But such journalistic imbalance can do real harm. Reporting that fails to apply reasonable skepticism to the scientific claims of environmental and public health advocates — claims that generally play up risk and danger — leaves us more afraid of some things than the evidence suggests we need to be: genetically modified food, radiation and nuclear power, industrial chemicals. All of these things pose some risk, but not nearly as much as the most adamant advocates claim. Excessive fears lead to choices and behaviors that can have significant and harmful impact, both for us as individuals and for society. Fear of radiation that vastly exceeds the actual risk, for example, fuels opposition to nuclear energy, which emits no greenhouse gases and could help in the fight against climate change.
We need better from our science and environmental and health journalists. We rely on them to keep us informed about threats to our health and safety, so we can make the most intelligent evidence-based choices about how to keep ourselves healthy and safe. Stories like “The Chemicals in Your Mac and Cheese” and “Is Your Drinking Water Full of Dangerous Chemicals?” don’t help.
David Ropeik is an author and risk-perception consultant assisting businesses, governments, nonprofits, and other organizations in their understanding of human perceptions of risk, and in navigating the challenges of effective risk communication. A full list of his current and former clients can be found here.