Apr 1 1993

An NPR Report on Dioxin

How "Neutral" Experts Can Slant a Story

FAIR’s four-month study of National Public Radio found that All Things Considered and Morning Edition devoted less than 2 percent of stories — 45out of 2,296 — to the environment. This parallels commercial broadcasting trends, where coverage of the environment has been declining since 1990 (Tyndall Report1/92).

Here, as in other subject areas, NPR tended to follow commercial journalistic conventions. Most commonly (38 percent of cases), the lead source for environmental stories was a government official. Journalists and academic experts accounted for another 20 percent of lead sources, and were the most likely to be quoted at length. Corporate spokespeople were twice as likely to be the lead source in an environmental story as environmental activists or representatives of public interest groups (13 percent compared to 6 percent).

NPR tended to assume that government sources were neutral and that statistics-spouting scientists were objective, both dangerous assumptions in a field as politically polarized as environmental science. Consider, for example, an NPR report on the debate regarding dioxin regulation.

On Sept. 23, 1991, Morning Edition host Bob Edwards announced that scientists were gathering in North Carolina to discuss recent studies suggesting that “the dangers of dioxin may be overrated.” NPR science reporter Richard Harris led off with interviews with two government scientists, Michael Gough of Congress’s Office of Technology Assessment and Linda Birnbaum from the Environmental Protection Agency. Both suggested that new studies might lower estimates of dioxin’s danger; Gough was quoted saying that the risk of cancer from dioxin “may be zero.”

Harris also cited an unnamed federal official who had ordered the dioxin-related evacuation of Times Beach, Mo., who now says the evacuation was unnecessary.

These remarks were countered by those of public interest activists: Ellen Silbergeld, a toxicologist identified as working for the Environmental Defense Fund, and Paul Connett, an “anti-incinerator activist.”

The last source quoted was George Carlo, identified by NPR as “a consultant for government and industry.” Carlo claimed that activists were politicizing scientific research by charging bias when new research results ran counter to their activist agenda.

What’s Wrong With This Coverage?

At first blush, NPR‘s report has the aura of fair play. Two apparently neutral sources, government scientists, set the stage, explaining the significance of the issue. Counter opinions by activists were then cited, with a final wrap-up from an independent consultant.

Beneath the apparent “balance,” however, the story was tilted toward corporate interests. The segment’s lead, “Recent studies suggest the dangers of dioxin may be overrated,” is straight from the chemical and paper industries’ public relations campaign.

NPR framed the government scientists it cited as neutral experts, pinning the story to the claim by the Office of Technology Assessment’s Michael Gough that new scientific data calls into question the toxicity of dioxin. Reconsideration of dioxin standards by the EPA, however, was based principally on industry-funded studies, one of which was written by Gough himself while on sabbatical from his government job.

And according to an investigation by Jeff Bailey in the Wall Street Journal (2/20/92), the EPA’s Birnbaum was influenced by a Chlorine Institute conference to urge EPA to consider the possibility that there is a “safe dose” of dioxin. Birnbaum, according to the Journal report, has since altered her opinion.)

The unnamed federal official who regretted the evacuation of Times Beach was Dr. Vernon Houk, whose work with the U.S. Public Health Service has been criticized by Congress, the National Academy of Science and others. In the fall of 1992, In These Times (9/25/92) reported that Houk “admitted copying virtually verbatim from paper industry documents in proposing relaxed standards for dioxin.”

The NPR report portrayed these scientists as objective experts, while activists were presented as the only partisan players. However, though Michael Gough now works for government, his research was previously funded by the paper industry. George Carlo, whom NPR described only as a consultant, was identified by the Wall Street Journalas a $150/hour employee of the chemical industry’s Chlorine Institute.