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Distortion in science reporting: Careless media, manipulative public relations ploys are to blame

The news was alarming: A minute residue of a chemical used to fumigate grain had been found in wheat flour. Bread and pastries disappeared from some supermarket shelves as the latest cancer-causing chemical scare rippled through the news media. But who remembers the great ethylene dibromide alarm a year later? Recently, the Environmental Protection Agency took a look at that news coverage. It concluded that reporting carelessness and hype had distorted a cautionary ban on use of the chemical into an immediate (and nonexistent) threat to human health.

It was a typical case of the media distorting an emotionally charged technical issue. Similar distortions of less emotion-provoking science and technology news happen all too frequently. And the public is the loser. Jay Winsten of Harvard University's School of Public Health spent three years trying to find the underlying causes of the distortion. His findings are both disturbing and instructive.

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Interviews with editors and science reporters made it plain that competition for front-page space or a spot on the evening TV news often led science journalists to hype their stories. That old villain deadline pressure took its share of the blame for inadequately researched and unbalanced reporting. But many reporters admitted to stretching the facts to enhance a story's chance of prominent display -- thus enhancing the reporter's chance of promotion. Editors, likewise, owned up to pressuring reporters to give their stories more drama and bite.

Winsten concluded that ``the intense competition places reporters in a conflict-of-interest situation where the reporter's personal aims can be at odds with providing a balanced presentation. It's disturbing in the sense that it's the most potent distorting influence in science news reporting.''

Blame for distorted science reporting is by no means one-sidedly with the press. The scientific and technical community is also at fault as experts, institutions, and their public relations consultants manipulate the media. Technically based companies send out ``truth squads'' of experts who have received special training in dealing with journalists. They visit news rooms to present ``the facts'' about nuclear power safety or toxic chemical containment and strive to get across a ``technically correct'' point of view. Environmental groups and other critics of technology also make the rounds. This is to say nothing of unscrupulous scientists who, Winsten points out, seek press coverage in order to attach their names to research advances before their competitors can.

Meanwhile, there is a deluge of press releases from scientific public relations offices seeking to influence news coverage. Winsten reports that some science writers claim they receive 400 pieces of mail a week. A spot check of my own mail found 75 pieces had arrived between the close of business on a Friday afternoon and the opening of business the following Monday. About 80 percent of that mail consisted of the media messages to which Winsten refers. Most were of dubious value.

Presumably, editors and reporters are equipped to weigh the biases in this public relations game, catch the deliberate distortions of fact and interpretation, and extract useful information for readers and viewers. That is a news gatherer's business, after all. But the task can be confusing and exhausting in the midst of such a flood. The confusion is compounded when a pesky public relations representative phones to ask if a reporter has received a press release even before the reporter has had a chance to open it. The more candid of such PR people admit that this is a calculated form of harassment to pressure reporters into considering material that might otherwise be tossed out.

Winsten is right to call for a stop to this ``current public relations assault.'' It is merely symptomatic of a deeper malaise, however, which Cornell University sociologist Dorothy Nelkin points out in the winter issue of The Journalist. Analyzing the scientific PR game, she finds that ``the press is viewed by all interests as a resource through which to manipulate the public.'' With that objective motivating one's news sources, it is tricky to keep a science story in perspective.

Unfortunately, the manipulators are too successful in gaining uncritical acceptance of their ``facts'' and assessments. According to a recent Wall Street Journal story, some TV stations use electronic releases from public relations firms in their entirety without disclosing the source -- releases containing ``subtle commercials for clients.'' And, in a study of the effect of sources on environmental reporting, Nelkin found ``that half of the published stories adopted the language as well as the content of press releases.''

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It would be naive to assume that the manipulators can be made to stop or that reporters and news executives who are so inclined will cease to sensationalize science news coverage. But, as Winsten and Nelkin point out, the situation has gotten out of hand.

It is time for the more responsible editors and reporters to wake up to what is happening and apply the tough standards they enforce in political reporting to their science news coverage. They wouldn't run a politician's press release verbatim. Despite the inherently sensational nature of politics, they don't push the panic button every time a congressman views some issue with alarm.

As for putting personal aims above balanced coverage, political and governmental reporting is a competitive, rough-and-tumble beat. Yet it is an area where many editors and reporters feel a sense of public responsibilty that restrains selfishness. They should extend that responsibility to coverage of science and technology.

A Tuesday column. Robert C. Cowen is the Monitor's natural science editor.

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