Environment in Crisis

The Media
The Media

Framing the News

Back to Main Menu..
Manipulating the Media-Case Study

Controlling the Flow of Information
Manipulating the Media
Disputes over Interpretation


Sydney-siders were shocked in early 1989 when they were told by the media that fish caught near their coastline were massively contaminated with organochlorines. The impact on the fish markets was immediate. Fish sales declined dramatically costing the industry an estimated $500,000 each week. Many people blamed the media for this. It was assumed that scientific studies had been sensationalised and distorted in order to sell newspapers or improve ratings. The director of the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project who was visiting Sydney at the time advised government scientists and engineers:

The recent events in Sydney indicate a route of communication to the public from the scientists should be developed. This may reduce the "scare" from the press and shield the fishing industry from impacts produced by false or inaccurate media reporting.[1]

However the two studies that were the basis for media stories were reported accurately and did not overstate the results. The first study, which triggered the media attention, was the 1987 Malabar Bioaccumulation Study. The Sydney Morning Herald reported the results as follows:


Secret tests on fish caught near Sydney's main sewage outfall at Malabar have found dangerous levels of pesticides, up to 120 times above the recommended safety limits...

The red morwong had average concentrations of BHC of 1.22 parts per million, with the blue groper showing 0.20 parts per million. For HPTE, the red morwong showed average levels of 2.60 parts per million, with the blue groper 0.25 parts per million.

There were also traces of dieldrin in both fish, with the red morwong being slightly over the recommended maximum levels.[2]

In fact the levels of BHC (Benzene Hexachloride) were on average 122 times the National Health & Medical Research Council (NH&MRC) maximum residue limits and the worst fish had much higher levels (250 times NH&MRC limits). The newspaper did not even mention the heavy metal contamination of the fish. What the scientists and engineers involved really objected to had far more to do with their loss of control of this information than the accuracy of the reporting. Various government bodies and politiicians had kept this study quiet for a year and a half. The Herald had not only published the information (which had been leaked to them) but interpreted the levels of pesticides in the fish as being "dangerous".

Dissatisfaction with the media's reporting of scientific studies is sometimes really a manifestation of a wider struggle over the control of information and its meaning. The results of studies which are commissioned for a purpose generally have political and social implications and various groups have an interest in how such studies are reported. These groups generally avoid presenting people with raw data that they can judge for themselves and dislike journalists making their own judgements or seeking the judgements of outside experts.

The two bioaccumulation studies undertaken in Sydney in 1987 and 1988 were at the centre of a wider controversy over sewage pollution in Sydney and as a result they were the focus of a just such a struggle to control the flow and interpretation of information to the public. Media reporters, far from being the villains of the piece, were pawns in a power struggle, praised by environmentalists and rebuked by government scientists who blamed them for the public protest that ensued.

  1. Jack Anderson, 'Overview of the Planned Environmental Monitoring Programme', 1989.
  2. Sydney Morning Herald, 7th January 1989.


© 2003 Sharon Beder