Tag Archives: negative affects of media fear-mongering

The culture of fear and the attention economy

This video from a conference in New Zealand feature Microsoft Research professional Danah Boyd is, I think, a very important contribution to our understanding of our media and social media world.

Similar to the book “What is Happening to the News,” Ms. Boyd points out the connection between a supersaturated information world and the emergence of fear as the primary tool to break through the clutter. She says (approximate quote):”the more stimuli that competes for your attention, the more likely fear will drive your attention to them.”

Relating to my discussions on chemophobia, food safety, environmental disasters, brake problems on cars–there is a very strong built-in bias to create maximum fear by anyone who is competing for your attention. Headline writers whether they be from NYT, HuffPost or my blog, all work exceptionally hard to capture attention. You’ve got less than two seconds to do it. Viral video studies have shown that the key is visceral emotion–fear works wonders in that regard. So any journalist, editor, broadcaster, or blogger worth their salt is going to get very good at writing the headlines and focusing on those elements of a story that maximize the fear factor.

This is so significant for crisis communicators. When the TV cameras show up, when the reporter calls, when the blogger is digging up a story, what do they really need from you? They need something that will help them either create new fear or heighten existing fear. Yes, a generalization, but not such a broad one.

What does that mean for crisis communication? In short (and much more needs to be said on this): go direct to your audiences and two, be prepared to do all you can to counter the fear, uncertainty, dread and outrage that is the natural consequence of covering important stories today.

“Scared to Death” by Jon Entine should be mandatory reading

Unless you are brand new to crisisblogger you know that I think far too much of what parades for journalism today is bad for us. The competition for declining audiences leads even the most respected news organizations to resort to hyperbole, sensationalism, and shallowness. Stories too often have to create visceral emotions of fear, uncertainty, doubt or outrage–whereas the truth frequently is far more complex.

This, in my opinion, is one of the key drivers in the remarkable decline of trust in our nation. The public doesn’t trust big companies, CEOs, government agencies and certainly not Congress. But trust is lowest, ironically, in the news media.

So I think today’s media environment, while toxic for corporate reputations, is harmful. Now, I see that it is also probably quite harmful for our health.

Jon Entine, of the American Council for Science and Health, has written a powerful book called “Scared to Death: How Chemophobia Threatens Public Health.” This organization’s focus seems to be combatting junk science and situations where politics and public opinion intervenes in good policy making relating to science and health. The list of prominent scientists and physicians involved is long, impressive and fully disclosed.

I can’t summarize the basic message better than Entine:

“Belief in the relative benefits of chemicals, trust in the industries that produce them and confidence in government regulators have never been lower. Corporations that produce chemicals are often portrayed as greedy and indifferent. Questions persist about the government’s ability to exercise its oversight responsibility.”

The result, says Entine, may very well make us less healthy than healthy. One of the examples he provides to support this hypothesis is the clearly political nature of the President’s Cancer Panel Annual Report for 2008-2009. While 1.5 million new cases of cancer are diagnosed each year, and over a half million Americans die of cancer each year, and the societal cost if nearly a quarter trillion dollars, the report falsely focused on chemicals in the environment. How can he and I say “falsely”? Entine carefully answers that question, demonstrating that the consensus among epidemiologists is that the primary causes of cancer are tobacco, obesity, infections, radiation, stress and lack of physical activity. These numbers leave about 4% of cancers caused by toxins, contaminants and pollution. But, reports like this, so eagerly used by the media, activists and tort lawyers takes focus and dollars away from the real factors, thereby threatening our health.

But I found Entine’s detailed case studies on BPA and atrazine the most compelling.

BPA or bisphenol A is an industrial chemical used to make plastic products stronger and more flexible. It has been used in plastics manufacturing for over 50 years.

A sponsored link at the top of the Google search for the chemical gives an idea of the campaign against this chemical: Healthychild.org:

Plastics are everywhere and in most cases are very affordable and convenient. But, increasingly scientists are finding that a hidden cost may be our health. Some common plastics release harmful chemicals into our air, foods, and drinks. Maybe you can’t see or taste it, but if you’re serving your dinner on plastic, you’re likely eating a little plastic for dinner.

Even the wikipedia article on it gives substance to the government and scientific studies involving this chemical including the fact that it has been banned in Canada. But Entine tells a very different story. He notes that the studies, as with so many other chemical products, involve serious hormonal effects on rodents. But those tests are with injected chemicals at a rate 500,000 times of that consumed by humans–which do not inject BPA. Entine makes a strong case that the scientific evidence does not support concern over BPA and highlights the efforts of many from the European Union, to the Komen Foundation, to the FDA to try to calm the public fears about this substance. Here’s the CDC on BPA for example: “In animal and human studies, bisphenol A is well absorbed orally…in humans, little free bisphenol A circulates after oral absorption due to the high degree of glucuronidation by the liver. The glucucorinidated bisphenol A is excreted in the urine within 24 hours with no evidence of accumulation.”

Despite efforts by organizations like the FDA and CDC to calm the fears, the media pays no attention to such reports. Not when they can when “bushels” of awards like the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has done by publishing more than 50 stories “excoriating the government for not restricting or banning the use of BPA.”

The ban by the Canadian government provides a great example of politics completing overwhelming science when activists and sensationalist media combine to scare us to death. Entine reports:

“When Mark Richardson, the chief scientist and head of the study [by Health Canada on BPA]. unofficially concluded the evidence showed that the dangers of BPA were ‘so low as to be totally inconsequential’ and compared its estrogenic effects to tofu, activists and the media, led by The Globe and Mail of Toronto, mounted an attack on his credibility that led to his reassignment.”

But, when the Health Canada report came out it echoed Richardson’s conclusion: “Bisphenol A does not pose a risk to the general population, including adults, teenagers and children.” So what did the Canadian government do? Health Canada, reflecting on the role of public anxiety also said: “Even though scientific information may be inconclusive [a strange statement given the fact that this is one of the most studied chemicals on earth and none have shown a danger except by injecting 500,000 times the amount used by humans in rats], decisions have to be made to meet society’s expectations that risks be addressed and living standards maintained.” So, of course, the Canadian government banned it for use in infant products–but not for any other use. And now, the fact that it is banned in Canada, gives credence to the activists and media reports, strengthening the loop.

Score one for the activists and fear mongering media. Science loses, and so does the public interest.

The case study on atrazine is equally compelling, but I won’t go into the details here.

Chemicals kill, no doubt about it. Chemicals that occur in the natural world and that are created in the lab and factories. Everything we taste, touch and experience involves chemicals. The danger always comes in the amount of exposure and what that particular chemical does to us. And we are continually finding out more about the risks as well as dramatically improving our ability to detect chemicals and their risks. That is all good. Plus, there have been some horrible examples in the past where greedy corporate managers have overlooked risks to the public for the sake of profits. That’s why effective government regulation is essential, and we must hold our elected officials accountable for that.

Given all that, I fundamentally agree with Entine and the Council’s position. Too much junk science is pushed by activists and attorneys. Too many journalists and now bloggers and commenters are eager to scare the beJesus out of us in order to attract eyeballs and be seen as crusaders. Too many politicians care little about the science and what is real in their eagerness to be seen as the white knights out to save us all. Too many educators and academic scientists pass on their 1960s and 1970s values of distrust. The result is a world filled with false fears. It is endemic in our youth in particular. It is evident in far too many anonymous comments on the web. There is outrage, fear and mistrust that is stoked by too many institutions and fear mongers who have much to gain.

We are being scared to death and it is hurting all of us.