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How experts view the risks of common chemicals

22 May, 2009
Are chemicals killing us?. S. Robert Lichter, May 21, 2009. A groundbreaking study conducted by STATS, The Center for Health and Risk Communication at George Mason University, and the Society of Toxicology shows how experts view the risks of common chemicals – and that the media are overstating risk. If you believe what you see and hear in the media, Americans are being poisoned every day by the very chemicals we routinely use to improve our lives. Nora Ephron has told readers of the Huffington Post that she “loved” Teflon but had to throw out all her pans after hearing that the coating “probably causes cancer and birth defects.” The Environmental Working Group has repeatedly warned Americans that “millions of babies” are at risk from the chemical bisphenol A (BPA) in plastic baby bottles. Last week Chicago became the first city to ban the sale of baby bottles and sippy cups, on the grounds that BPA has been associated with everything from cancer to obesity. See.
How experts view the risks of common chemicals
The Internet – a sober corrective to unruly journalists?
A decade ago, the Internet was seen by professional journalists as the “Wild West” of news and information, carefree to the point of lawless – and in need of marshalling for accuracy and reliability. Now, it seems that the positions have switched, at least in terms of scientific information, and it’s the Internet that is providing sobriety and balance to a chronically careless and sensationalistic mainstream media.

The survey results showing that WebMD is the only news source rated as accurate by a majority (56 percent) of toxicologists for covering the risks of chemicals, followed by Wikipedia (45 percent), whereas only 15 percent described similar coverage in the national print media (i.e., the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal) as accurate. This figure dropped to 6 percent for USA Today and 5 percent for broadcast network news

At a press conference at the National Press Club to release the preliminary results of the study, Dr. S. Robert Lichter, described the Wikipedia finding as an indictment of the mainstream media – " it’s disturbing that someone off the street seemingly can do a better job than the media."

But the result doesn’t surprise Andrew Lih, journalist and author of the “Wikipedia Revolution: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World’s Greatest Encyclopedia.”

“This reminds me of the Nature study that was done in December 2005 where it found that on average, Britannica had 3 errors per article, and Wikipedia had 4 errors,” Lih says by email. “It was surprising because Wikipedia did much better than expected, given its foreign work process and Britannica did much worse. People had presumed a certain level of accuracy from Britannica’s reputation, and it was knocked down from that pedestal. To me the WebMD and Wikipedia results here are similar – they’re much closer than what one would expect. Wikipedia doing better, WebMD doing worse.”

With the mainstream press financially battered by the Internet’s flattened, impecunious economic model, the news that the Internet appears to have created a more successful model for purveying accurate information than traditional journalism seems doubly cruel. But to Alissa Quart, author, contributing editor/columnist at the Columbia Journalism Review, and recent recipient of a Niemen Fellowship at Harvard, the results denote a positive trend.

“Maybe the toxicologists are right in their assessment of Wikipedia, maybe not,” says Quart. “But at any rate, they will eventually get what they need online. A hierarchy of authority is going to reassert itself on the Internet – the wide, open, amateur planes will have a ruling class, a scrim of experts who will act like institutions.”

Such expertise has a fundamentally different motivation to that of a journalist. Think of it as a clash of narratives. As Quart notes,

"Journalists fall into storylines, because that’s how we write. There are three narratives, that we use, which can make us great but also get us into trouble – one narrative to please our editors, one to please our readers, and one which leans toward our sources, because we identify with them. WebMD and Wikipedia contributors are disconnected from most of those narratives – maybe they are trying to please certain readers, but they aren’t ‘the reader.’ Their model of knowledge doesn’t ask for stories, or sentiment or people.

In short, argument trumps aesthetics. Lih, an engineer by education, concurs. The clash of narratives “also says something about motivation, in that the mainstream press will be driven by reports, PR bring shoved at them, and also the market and the desire by editors (in a top-down manner) to demand reporters find a story in the latest research, even if in the greater context of the field, it doesn’t warrant so much attention. In that sense, Wikipedia’s motivations are different, in that the ‘crowd’ helps moderate and even dampen the type of ‘recentism’ that is so pervasive in news coverage.”

WebMD is a hybrid of conventional reporting with what might be seen as an added scrim of ‘expert’ crowd sourcing. As Michael Smith MD, Chief Medical Editor of WebMD says via email, "we have an in-depth news process of choosing appropriate studies for reporting, including critical review of studies by board-certified physicians. In addition, we provide a wide array of health information, including news, features, videos, and reference, all of which is reviewed by a physician prior to appearing on WebMD.com. Not only does this help us identify study weaknesses, it helps assure that WebMD readers are getting the most accurate and up to date health information to help them in making important health decisions with their doctor."

In other words , WebMD places far more emphasis on consensus – the weight of evidence on a given topic at any given time in the medical community or medical specialization – over what is ‘new,’ the focus of most reporters. In a sense, this is much closer to the ‘science’ of journalism Joseph Pulitzer hoped to create by founding a journalism school at Columbia than the journalism that Pulitzer’s papers actually practiced. So in many ways, the Internet is speeding us back to the Enlightenment, a place where rationality is king, and where journalism, as the philosopher David Hume saw it, was a new way of doing philosophy.

Of course, the survey findings overwhelmingly show that the aesthetics of narrative persuasion, journalistic formula, and of ‘recentism’ are still very much in the ascendant in public and political debate. It’s clear that if toxicologists were in charge of communicating risk to the public, the news would be different in substance and in style. Whether the news would be persuasive is another matter; style is, after all, a matter of aesthetics. But the survey points to a signal shift in the status of the Internet, with the threat to the mainstream media to adapt to a more “scientific” way of doing journalism, of rebalancing ‘the new’ with consensus, or to risk losing what remaining credibility and relevance it has left.

– Trevor Butterworth


Revista toxicológica en línea