Shaping Green Controversies

Recognizing What Triggers Environmental Misinformation

This was published originally in the April 2009 issue of PRSA’s TACTICS newsletter.

Environmental concerns are driven by good intentions and, often, a sense of urgency. There is a reason for this. Climate change indexes, regarded by scientists as credible indicators of global environmental health, are painting an unflattering portrait of our future.

Consequently, environmental issues are laced with controversy. The conflict is often perceived as human interests versus environmental interests. At one end of the spectrum is a view that Earth was made for humans to manipulate it as we see fit. The other end of the spectrum is guided by the belief that we must tread lightly in order to save the planet.

Most people reside somewhere in the middle of this spectrum and many lean toward one side or the other. However, in the news media, those who are most passionate about the environment often drive these issues. Because of this, environmental misinformation has the potential to run rampant.

The Alar scare of the 1980s and 1990s typified the success of misinformation in shaping policy. Alar is a growth-regulating chemical sprayed on fruit crops that was said to be carcinogenic. It was eventually banned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The amount of Alar to be carcinogenic to humans, said to equal 5,000 gallons of apple juice per day, was debated. The end result: the risk to infants consuming apple products was considered too significant. The ban went into effect.

Today, the Alar ban is viewed as being the result of a campaign of fear and misinformation rather than careful consideration of the scientific evidence.

Campaigns like this one are based on misinformation that becomes exacerbated by concerns about environmental issues. Many debated the perceived environmental benefits of having a hands-off attitude toward nature after Lake Tahoe’s Angora fire in June 2007. The blaze was started by an illegal campfire and it destroyed more than 300 homes and structures. Several factors caused the fire to become unmanageable — people realized that tree thinning and forest-fuel treatments were lacking because of an historic laissez-faire approach to forest management in the Tahoe basin.

The public view of forest management practices has since changed and it is now generally understood that better forest management improves environmental health, especially if devastating fires can have a negative impact on the quality of Lake Tahoe’s water. After the Angora fire, a bi-state fire commission, formed by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons, recognized the need to better manage the forest fuels that enable fires to rapidly spread.

Misconceptions about the environment also influence how the news media cover environmental stories. Credible environmental information should ideally come from scientific journals, which have a built-in system to help guard against potential bias. Peer review, where scientists evaluate their colleagues’ research, exists in order to weed out poorly conducted studies and possible scientific bias.

Peer review is not foolproof, but it is a better way to detect mistakes than the editing process in most newsrooms. Journalists are not bound by the procedures designed to guard against scientific bias. In addition, reporters are often not trained in research methodologies and draw conclusions and parallels where they might not otherwise exist. Cautionary principles guide scientific research, while news stories and David-versus-Goliath environmental battles, such as a grassroots environmental organization versus a large, multinational corporation, often generate a lot of reader interest.

Sometimes it is common for an advocacy group to release a study that indicts a government entity or a corporation. The media often cover such studies, even if the research may not have much scientific validity.

When the Associated Press published an article in 2008 about the amount of pharmaceutical drugs found in public water supplies, the story diminished the fact that there have been advancements in water testing technologies. The regulation and monitoring of public water supplies has improved since this story to better detect contaminants of any amount. This indicates advancements in testing methods, and not necessarily an increased risk for consumers.

PR counselors have an obligation to look critically at potential sources of misinformation, such as studies released by advocacy organizations that are presented as scientific reports. When an environmentally themed news story gains popularity, despite being loosely scientific in nature, it behooves the PR professional to ask specific questions such as:

  1. Does the study try to avoid broad conclusions?
  2. Was the study disseminated to the news media before being peer reviewed?
  3. Is the study published in a peer reviewed, scientific journal?
  4. How was the study funded?
  5. Do the researchers or authors have potential conflicts of interest?

Any one of these questions may not be worthy of concern. Lesser-known journals publish plenty of research, which does not negate the validity of the research findings. Similarly, research funded by a corporation or interest group may or may not be biased if the published results are reviewed by other researchers.
As PR counselors, however, it is our responsibility to carefully gauge how environmental issues are reported in the news. When controversy is heightened, we need to understand how misinformation flourishes. At the same time, we have a responsibility to communicate the most credible information in ways that can be easily understood by our publics.

When it comes to environmental issues, it is paramount to ensure that all information is accurate. Because our environment is so fragile, misinformation can needlessly impair workable solutions to the planet’s many environmental challenges. Our future depends on clarity, honesty and solutions that arise through mutual understanding.

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