Clarity Blog

Clarity Blog

Fukushima Fear-Mongering

If there’s one group in America that lives by Rahm Emanuel’s axiom that one should never let a crisis go to waste, it’s the media.

With the nuclear plant accident at Fukushima, the media have two choices: They can use it as an event to teach readers about radiation and risk, or they could use it to drum up readership.  They largely see the two as incompatible, so with some exceptions, they have gone with the latter, publicizing every finding of trace radiation and using terms like “hellish” when referring to the Fukushima site.

When you have the facts – something even more powerful than nuclear fuel – the behavior of the media is regrettable.  Fortunately, some outlets have provided us with good facts. We quoted an LA Times piece earlier about radiation, risk and fear, and the Washington Post ran an excellent story about how NHK, Japan’s national broadcaster, has been the voice of calm through the earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima incident.

Not so the Post itself, which has a lead story today, Chernobyl, a warning for Japan. In stark contrast, an excellent article in Reason, Nuclear News Meltdown, gives us reason to question the basis of most mainstream media coverage of Chernobyl or any accident at a nuclear plant.  It tells us:

In 1987, one year after the Chernobyl accident, the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) compared media coverage surrounding the disaster with scientific opinion on nuclear power. News coverage at the broadcast networks, news magazines, and leading newspapers treated Chernobyl as a disaster for nuclear energy in the United States as well.

By a 3-to-1 margin, news stories concluded that a Chernobyl-style disaster was likely to occur in the U.S. Among sources identified as scientists, those who called U.S. reactors unsafe outnumbered those who called them safe by a 3-to-2 margin. (For example, a scientist on the CBS Evening News delivered this soundbite when asked about nuclear safety: “Anything that can melt down possibly will.”)

Conversely, a CMPA survey of 580 scientists randomly selected from the listings of American Men and Women of Science (the “Who’s Who” of the scientific community) found that those who rated a Chernobyl-type accident as improbable outnumbered those who rated it as probable by a 4-to-1 margin, and those who regarded U.S. reactors as safe outnumbered those who found them unsafe by the same 4 to-1 margin.

Can you conclude from this that the media were profoundly biased in their selection of sources?  Maybe.  More likely, the evidence would show that the well-oiled public relations machines run by anti-nuclear organizations were much more adept than the nuclear science community was at getting sources in front of the media, and the media was profoundly lazy and unprofessional in not aggressively seeking out alternate views. The evident bias in the media coverage may not have been so much in the news coverage itself, but in the selection of sources they used to relay the story.  There’s a lesson in there for public relations and public affairs professionals: Don’t expect the media to come to you, no matter how expert you may be … especially if you’re working for someone other than environmentalists, liberal activists, trial attorneys or Democrats.

Of course, some reporters are more obviously biased, like those who write the OC Watchdog column and blog at the Register.  They have posted a total of nine negative stories on nuclear power since Japan’s earthquake, quoting suspect sources like the Union of Concerned Scientists and legislators promoting anti-nuclear bills. But when your next performance review hinges on the number of comments your posts have received, as is the case at the Register, wouldn’t you opt for sensationalism, too?

The difference between being biased in selection of sources and just being biased is subtle and the end result is identical – a populace that can’t be counted on to make the right decisions because they’ve been shielded from relevant information and swayed by the most sensational of all journalists – the headline writers.  As America faces the critical issue of how we will generate the energy we need, the media has done yet another disservice to rational thought, and rational thought is the linchpin of a successful democracy.

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