When the Facts Get in the Way  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   October 1994

When the Facts Get in the Way   

By Vicki Monks
Vicki Monks, a Maryland-based journalist, has written for Rolling Stone and Vogue and reported for National Public Radio.      


Once a "fact" makes its way into the public consciousness, it tends to stay there. Whether it's true or not doesn't always matter.

Take the much-repeated assertion that environmental groups needlessly frightened the public about the pesticide Alar, once sprayed on apple trees. The fact is, after extensive scientific review, the Environmental Protection Agency banned the use of Alar on food crops for posing "unacceptable risks to public health."

The same thing has happened with the chlorine-based chemical dioxin. On September 13, the EPA released a draft summary of a three-year scientific review concluding that dioxin is "likely to present a cancer hazard to humans'' and may harm the reproductive and immune systems. These conclusions are based on numerous studies published over the past few years that have found dioxin to be extremely toxic. Despite that evidence, until the EPA's latest pronouncement much of the media continued to report that dioxin is less dangerous than once believed (see "See No Evil," June 1993).

In his 1993 book on unnecessary government regulation, "Breaking the Vicious Circle," Judge Stephen Breyer (now a U.S. Supreme Court justice) wrote that the "EPA has reported that the dangers of dioxin had been overstated."

In a February 11, 1994, op-ed piece in the Washington Post on bovine growth hormone, columnist Charles Krauthammer listed dioxin as a chemical whose name provokes irrational fears. "Scientific-sounding words have that effect," he wrote. "Call one chemical compound dioxin and Times Beach, Missouri, will be evacuated to avoid it." (The town was closed down in 1983 after high levels of dioxin were discovered.)

In an April 21 ABC News special called "Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death?" correspondent John Stossel ridiculed earlier reporting about the dangers of dioxin at Times Beach. He implied the evacuation had been a mistake.

On June 5, an environmental quiz in the Washington Post Outlook section cited the evacuation of Times Beach as a correct answer to a question about misguided environmental solutions. The town "should never have been evacuated...because, on further reflection, EPA decided that dioxins were not as lethal as they were first thought to be," the article said.

The agency, however, has never come to such a conclusion. In fact, its reassessment of dioxin, which was leaked to the press last May, concluded the opposite.

Outlook editor Jodie Allen insists the quiz was accurate. "Dioxin has not shown any carcinogenic effects, even at high exposures," Allen says. "People put scare headlines on these stories but the data are not that strong. Clearly this is not a major riskñ" She does acknowledge, however, that a May 12 report by Gary Lee in the Post on the new EPA study contradicted her assertions. Lee followed up with a front page story on September 12 emphasizing dioxin's link to cancer in humans.

ABC's John Stossel stands by his reporting: "The purpose of the special was to show that all toxic waste sites represent a risk that has been hyped by the..press." He concedes that he has not reported on dioxin for 10 years and has not followed the EPA's review of the chemical.

Breyer, Stossel and Allen all refer to articles by New York Times reporter Keith Schneider to support their contention that dioxin's risks have been overblown.

úerhaps the most influential of Schneider's stories, which appeared in August 1991, compared exposure to dioxin to "spending a week sunbathing." Schneider also wrote several follow-up pieces minimizing the chemical's dangers, including one in March 1993 that asserted that "dioxin may not be so dangerous after all."

Last spring Schneider backtracked somewhat when he reported on the leaked draft summary of the EPA's review. In a May 11 front page story, he wrote that "the [EPA] scientists said that most adults and children already have levels of dioxin in their bodies at or near the concentrations that cause..fetal and immune system problems in laboratory animals."

But he also continued to assert that the EPA does not consider dioxin a significant carcinogen. Referring to cancer, he wrote that the draft "called into question dioxin's reputation as a deadly killer."

Dr. R. Lynn Goldman, the EPA's assistant administrator for prevention, pesticides and toxic substances, says there is nothing in the study to support Schneider's interpretation. The summary notes that while some uncertainty remains, studies on humans "provide support for an association" between dioxin and cancer.

Other journalists – including those at the Wall Street Journal and Newsweek – reported that the EPA summary reaffirmed that dioxin poses a cancer risk for humans.

Schneider referred questions about his coverage to Carl Lavin, his editor at the time the May article appeared. "Neither Keith Schneider nor the New York Times has a conclusion about dioxin," says Lavin. "We report other people's conclusions. Schneider accurately reported the [EPA draft's] conclusion about cancer."

On September 14, Schneider finally reported that the EPA had found dioxin to be a "probable'' cause of cancer in humans.

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