Misleading environmental news

Most GallonDaily readers probably already know not to believe everything they read in the press, but recent news coverage of the West Virginia chemical spill shows just how misleading the press can be.

Today major news outlet CNN is carrying headlines ‘West Virginia Water Restrictions are Ending’ and ‘Water Safe Again in West Virginia’. National Geographic Daily News has announced “On Monday, the 300,000 residents of nine counties in West Virginia were told that they could resume drinking and using their tap water.” In GallonDaily’s opinion the headlines fail to make clear that contaminated water warnings, resulting from a major spill in the region, are being ended district by district and that more customers are still under a water use ban than have been given clearance to use the piped water. CNN might seek to make the case that people in the affected area will know that the restrictions are being lifted zone by zone or that the story implies that the restrictions are being lifted zone by zone, but to GallonDaily the headline is potentially misleading and the story unclear, particularly for less well educated residents who may believe the headlines that they see on CNN or read on its website.

Credit to CNN for having other stories that are much more clear about the ongoing water restrictions in West Virginia, and noting also that some other media have headlines and stories that are no more clear than this CNN story, but what of the resident who reads one of these headlines and, believing the news source to be reliable, drinks contaminated water from their tap?

These problems arise for two reasons. First, media companies have largely cut back on environment and science expertise. Dramatic headlines are much more the order of the day and few outlets give thought to whether readers will gain an accurate understanding of a situation by glancing at a headline. Proliferation of media continues to make this situation even worse with precious few reporters having any technical expertise at all. Indeed, some publishers and editors believe that better news is reported if journalists know nothing about the topics on which they are reporting. Second, organizations releasing news are also losing their expertise, either to external public relations firms or to politicians. The main source of information about the West Virginia chemical spill has been Governor Earl Tomblin. Tomblin has been in politics for 40 years, having previously been a self-employed businessman and school teacher. There’s not much in his background that would lead him to have expertise in the health impacts of toxic chemicals in drinking water! GallonDaily suggests that society, and especially businesses when distributing news, should reject grandstanding by politicians and should steer the microphones to people who have expertise in the subject under discussion. To give West Virginia American Water, the private sector operator of drinking water plants in the affected area, their news releases and other communications about the consequences of the spill have been exemplary.

The CNN story mentioned in this article can be read at http://earlystart.blogs.cnn.com/2014/01/14/west-virginia-water-restrictions-are-ending. The national geographic daily News article is at http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/01/140113-west-virginia-chemical-spill-ecological-effects-science/. West Virginia American Water has its news releases on its website at http://www.amwater.com/wvaw/about-us/news.html.

And a footnote:  the National Geographic Daily News article states that Environmental Working Group staff member Sonya Lunder said, “If it had been 5,000 gallons of dioxin, a persistent and highly toxic chemical, it would have been terrible,” Lunder should know better and maybe (hopefully!) she has been misquoted. Dioxin has never been manufactured as an industrial chemical, it occurs only as an unwanted byproduct, and there is no such things as a stockpile of 5,000 gallons anywhere in the United States. The 1976 Seveso disaster, which led to the highest ever exposure of residential populations to dioxin, an extremely toxic substance, involved one kilogram of the chemical. Fie on EWG for outrageous exaggeration!

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