The media played a major role
in the early 1990s in changing public perceptions of dioxin from
deadly poison to misunderstood and maligned chemical. The media
generally downplayed the dangers of dioxins despite emerging evidence
that indicated that it was in fact just as dangerous as had previously
been thought. Between 1990 and 1993 several studies highlighted
that reproductive and immune-system effects of dioxin could in
fact be more devastating for human health than the cancer caused
by dioxin. One study accidentally found that monkeys exposed to
low levels of dioxin every day developed endometriosis and that
the severity of the disease increased with increased exposure.
Scientists also found that the immune system of mice was suppressed
when exposed to relatively low levels of dioxin. "Mice pretreated
with dioxin readily die after exposure to a quantity of virus
that rarely kills healthy mice." The amount of dioxin required
to cause this affect was far lower than the amount required to
cause dioxin's other affects in animals (Gibbons, 1993; Reichhardt
1994; Schmidt 1992).
New York Times
The New York Times has
been one of the leading papers to downplay the dangers of dioxin.
In 1991 it devoted an editorial and two front-page articles by
Keith Schneider, to government official Vernon
Houk's claims.The editorial
praised the EPA for "sensibly considering new evidence that could
lead to relaxation of the current strict and costly regulatory
standards" for dioxin and a few days later it ran a front page
story beginning "Dioxin, once thought of as the most toxic chemical
known, does not deserve that reputation, according to many scientists,"
scientists who were not named (Montague 1991).
One article headlined 'U.S. Officials
Say Dangers of Dioxin Were Exaggerated' stated that "Exposure
to the chemical, once thought to be much more hazardous than chain
smoking, is now considered by some experts to be no more risky
than spending a week sunbathing." The other article called for
relaxation of "the current strict and costly standards" for dioxin.
Schneider's stories were reprinted
in more than 20 other major newspapers and the claims that dioxin
was no longer dangerous were repeated by dozens of other media
outlets. Headlines in other papers included "The Deadliness of
Dioxin put in Doubt by New Data" (Los Angeles Times), "On
2nd thought, toxic nightmares might be unpleasant dreams" (Chicago
Tribune) and "The Double Take on Dioxin" (Time Magazine).
No journalists bothered to contact the CDC to see what they thought
of Houk's claim that the CDC had made a mistake in evacuating
Times Beach. If they had they would have found the same action
would still have been taken twenty years later, based on the most
up-to-date scientific evidence. (Monks, 1993)
The comparison with sunbathing,
which Schneider admits he thought up himself, was repeated in
many media outlets variously attributed to "top federal scientists"
(Arizona Republic), "some health specialists" (Newark Star-Ledger),
"a widening group of scientists" (Sacramento Bee) and "some
studies" (AAP and Dallas Morning News) (Quoted in Monks,
1993). The sunbathing comparison was also repeated in a 1994 book
Environmental Overkill, by wise-use movement hero, scientist
and former governor of Washington state, Dixy Lee Ray:
Exposure to dioxin, once
thought to be much more hazardous than chain smoking, is now considered
to be no more risky than spending a week sunbathing. The difference
between these two beliefsless than ten years apartis
that the first one was based on unsubstantiated statements, hearsay,
and hype with no data to back it up, while the second rests solidly
on years of carefully gathered evidence corroborated by independent
experts. (Ray & Guzzo, 1994, p. 143)
Whilst some newspapers reported
the dioxin controversy well, most notably the Wall Street Journal
which exposed the public relations efforts behind the Banbury
Conference, many followed
Times' lead, and ignored new evidence that was emerging
that in fact dioxin was more harmful than previously thought because
of its non-cancer effects. David Lapp, writing in Multinational
Monitor, says that:
the media's failure to
report on developments that contradict industry's dioxin message
while giving so much attention to Houk and others' questionable
beliefs indicates the power of the forces confronting environmentalists
and their allies. (Lapp 1991, p.12)
However, the reinstatement of
dioxin was not the sole preserve of the newspapers. One 1991 report
on dioxin by National Public Radio (NPR) was examined by Charlotte
Ryan (1993). On the face of it, it appeared as if the coverage
of the issue, which had included two government scientists, two
environmental activists and an independent consultant, had been
balanced and fair. But as Ryan points out, one of the two government
scientists who were treated as neutral experts, was Michael Gough
whose questioning of the toxicity of dioxin was based on industry
funded studies "one of which was written by Gough himself while
on sabbatical from his government job."
The other government scientist
was Linda Birnbaum, an EPA scientist who had been temporarily
convinced by the Banbury Conference that the EPA's dioxin assessment
might be wrong. The independent consultant was George Carlo, consultant
to the Chlorine Institute. Only one of the two environmental activists
was identified as a scientist although both were. And the whole
piece was introduced with a statement that "recent studies suggest
the dangers of dioxin may be overrated." Ryan concludes:
While appearing to reflect
diversity of opinion, NPR's report on dioxin fell prey to...a
"well-financed public relations campaign by the paper and chlorine
industries." Buying into mainstream journalistic assumptions about
scientific objectivity and government neutrality, NPR did not
help its listeners understand how federal government regulation
and environmental research have been politicized.
New studies indicating the danger
of dioxin was in fact worse than previously realised were hardly
reported in the US press. In fact, the New York Times and
other papers continued to push the line that scientists no longer
thought dioxin was so dangerous after all and gave the impression
that the controversy over dioxin had in fact been resolved. Schneider
wrote in 1993 that: "billions of dollars are wasted each year
in battling problems that are no longer considered especially
dangerous" such as dioxin.
Even after the EPA's draft reassessment
was leaked to the media in 1994 reaffirming that dioxin is a probable
carcinogen but also concluding that other, non cancer health effects
of dioxin and dioxin-like chemicals were far greater than previously
thought, media coverage tended to suggest that the dangers of
dioxin had all been exaggerated by emotional environmentalists.
In an article in Time Magazine,
Madeleine Nash makes no acknowledgment of any scientific basis
for the hazards of dioxin. She states: "Now environmentalists
say dioxin and scores of other chemicals pose a threat to human
fertility" and that "with the escalating rhetoric, many professionals
in the risk-assessment business are worried that once again emotion
rather than common sense will drive the political process." She
quotes a risk analyst who "suggests that people should strive
to keep the perils posed by dioxin in perspective and remember
other threats that are more easily averted"(Nash 1994).
"Phantom risks and real
risks compete not only for our resources but also for our attention",
Graham observes. "It's a shame when a mother worries about toxic
chemicals, and yet her kids are running around unvaccinated and
without bicycle helmets." (Nash 1994, p. 70).
Reporter Gina Kolata, who had
replaced Schneider at the New York Times wrote a series
of articles stating that the theory that chlorine-based chemicals
might interfere with hormones has been "refuted by careful studies"
which she does not name. The Times declined to publish
letters to the editor by scientists refuting this allegation and
a group of scientists actually paid for an advertisement so as
to be able to point out the 'inaccuracies' in Kolata's article
In one article reviewing the book
Our Stolen Future, written by three people, two of whom
are scientists, Kolata suggested that the claims in the book had
no scientific basis, despite the mountain of evidence cited in
the EPA dioxin reassessment report, and were merely a trendy expression
of political correctness: "In a warning supported by allies who
include Robert Redford and Vice President Al Gore, some environmentalists
are asserting that humans and wildlife are facing a new and serious
threat from synthetic chemicals" (Quoted in Montague 1996b).
The reporting on this issue is
not altogether surprising. All newspapers depend on large quantities
of paper produced at pulp and paper mills that discharge dioxin
contaminated waste. The newspapers benefit from the cheaper paper
prices that result from paper mills not having to install new
equipment to eliminate dioxins nor pay out large sums as a result
of lawsuits over dioxin pollution. Moreover many newspapers also
own shares in these paper mills. For example, the New York
Times had major interests in four paper mills. At the time
of the 1991 series on the harmlessness of dioxin one of the mills
partly owned by the Times was the subject of a Canadian law suit
claiming C$1.3 billion for polluting three rivers with dioxin
(Lapp 1991, p.10).
Other papers also have financial
interests in paper and timber companies and "have taken editorial
positions supporting relaxed dioxin standards without disclosing
their ties to the industry." Vicki Monks (1993), writing in the
American Journalism Review, points to Central Newspapers,
"owned by former Vice President Dan Quayle's family", which partly
owns a newsprint mill and also owns the Arizona Republic
and Indianapolis Star which have downplayed dioxin's dangers
in editorials. In a similar position is the Times Mirror Co and
its paper the Los Angeles Times, as well as the Chicago
Tribune and the Washington Post. None have declared
their conflict of interest in reporting on dioxin issues.
1993, 'Dioxin Tied to Endometriosis',
Science, Vol. 262, No. 26 November, 1373.
Lapp, David, 1991, 'Defenders
of Dioxin: The Corporate Campaign to Rehabilitate Dioxin', Multinational
Monitor (October) , pp. 8-12.
Monks, Vicki, 1993, 'See no evil',
American Journalism Review, Vol. 15, No. 5, pp. 18-25.
Montague, Peter, 1996a, Dangers
of Chemical Combinations, Rachel's Hazardous Waste News,
Montague, Peter, 1996b, Our
Stolen Future-Part 1,
Rachel's Hazardous Waste News, No. 486.
Montague, Peter, 1991, A
Tale of Science and Industry,
Rachel's Hazardous Waste News, No. 248.
Nash, J. Madeleine, 1994, 'Keeping
Cool About Risk', Time, Vol. 144, No. 12, p. 70.
Ray, Dixy Lee and Lou Guzzo, 1994,
Environmental Overkill: Whatever Happened to Common Sense?
(New York: HarperCollins)
Reichhardt, Tony, 1994, 'EPA rebuffs
challenge to its assessment of dioxin data', Nature, Vol.
371, No. 22 September, p. 272.
Ryan, Charlotte, 1993, 'An NPR
Report on Dioxin: How 'Neutral' Experts Can Slant a Story', EXTRA!
Schmidt, Karen, 1992, 'Dioxin's
Other Face: Portrait of an "environmental hormone"', Science
News, Vol. 141, No. January 11, pp. 24-27.