Times Beach was evacuated in 1983 because it was contaminated by dioxin. Now some journalists are reporting dioxin isn't all that dangerous. Are they right?
By Vicky Monks
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American Journalism Review, June 1993
Closed road into Times Beach, MO.
ON MARCH 21 , Keith Schneider of The New York Times
kicked off a five-part series on misguided federal environmental policies, reporting that "trillions of dollars are wasted each year in battling problems that are no longer considered especially dangerous…." The front page article cited only one example of a substance that "may not be so dangerous after all" -- dioxin.
This wasn't the first time Schneider had reported that dioxin, a chlorine-based chemical, is not as hazardous as once thought. In fact, he has taken the lead in presenting this revisionist view. Last September, for example, he reported that an independent panel of scientists assembled by the Environmental Protection Agency concluded that dioxin is not a large-scale cancer threat except to people exposed to "unusually high levels" in factories or from accidents, and that "the risk to average Americans exposed to dioxin…is lower than previously believed."
A year earlier, on August 15, 1991, he wrote an influential piece that asserted that exposure to the chemical "is now considered by some experts to be no more risky than spending a week sunbathing," suggesting that pollution control requirements could be relaxed. This front-page story spawned dozens of articles across the country repeating his claims, as well as editorials insinuating that billions of taxpayer dollars have been wasted on dioxin cleanup and control.
Despite the flurry of attention, Schneider's conclusions about dioxin's risks have a major flaw: They're wrong. Many experts in and outside of the federal government say there is no scientific basis for suggesting that dioxin is less dangerous than previously thought. "I don't think we have any indication right now that the risks would be lower than we believed," says Dr. William Farland, the EPA official in charge of the department's reassessment of dioxin. In fact, Farland says, the latest research has raised concerns that dioxin may cause immune and reproductive system problems even at the minute levels found in the general population.
Schneider's reporting acumen has been questioned as well. For example, other reporters who attended the scientific panel's four-day meeting last September came away with a markedly different interpretation. Newsday's
Earl Lane reported that the panel, which was convened to review drafts of the EPA's reassessment of dioxin, had found "that the chemical's effects may be broader and more troubling than previously thought." Bureau of National Affairs reporter Jeffrey Johnson paraphrased an EPA official who told him the findings show "the ubiquitous chemical remains a major health threat." Three weeks after the conference, on October 16, The Wall Street Journal
chimed in. Reporter Rose Gutfeld wrote that "the danger from dioxin may be broader and more serious than previously thought."
Several scientists who participated in the meetings called Schneider's story "very inaccurate." Claude Hughes, a toxicologist, epidemiologist and fertility specialist at Duke University Medical Center, says, "Frankly, it was pretty bad journalism. It was not a valid summary of the meeting."
Schneider says he is simply bucking environmental wisdom. For too long, he says, the press has been a captive of environmental groups. "What drives the national environmental groups is not necessarily the truth," he says. "Environmental journalists have to regard environmental groups with as much skepticism as we have traditionally regarded polluters."
Environmental truisms such as the thinning of the ozone layer and global warming should also be challenged, he says. "We haven't done enough to look at the other side [of those issues]. We haven't done as good a job to find those scientists who are skeptical."
The skeptics, however, have always been in the minority among scientists who have been researching dioxin's dangers. There also has never been a consensus among government officials that dioxin's toxicity has been overstated.
Some news organizations, including The Wall Street Journal
, U.S. News & World Report
, and the Atlanta Journal and Constitution
, have covered the dioxin controversy well. But The New York Times
in particular, the Washington Post
and some other news organizations have ignored scientific evidence and presented a grossly inaccurate picture. While Schneider and others have been reporting that dioxin is not as dangerous as previously believed, the fact is that scientists now say it may be more dangerous.
Nearly everyone living in industrialized society has been exposed to dioxin. The chlorine-based chemical is unintentionally created during the manufacture of paper, herbicides, and other products, including some household cleaners. Dioxin can also enter the air in the fly ash from incinerators, and has been found in rivers downstream from paper mills and other factories that use chlorine compounds. And because it accumulates in fatty tissue, dioxin moves up the food chain from fish and cattle to humans and can be passed along to infants in concentrated doses from mothers' milk.
Until the summer of 1991, news stories generally referred to dioxin as the most dangerous of manmade chemicals. In the laboratory, it had been shown to be more than 11,000 times more potent than sodium cyanide in killing guinea pigs. Moreover, it had induced cancer at levels far below any other known carcinogen.
The hazards of dioxin were first identified in herbicides in the late 1950s, but it didn't become a household word until Vietnam War veterans began to claim there was a link between their post-war health problems and the defoliant Agent Orange, which contained dioxin.
While GIs were spraying 11 million gallons of Agent Orange -- and about 8 million gallons of other defoliants -- over Vietnam, a major dioxin-related health problem surfaced in the United States. In 1971 a waste hauler had mixed dioxin-contaminated waste with oil and sprayed it on unpaved roads, in trailer parks and on fields to hold down dust at 27 locations in eastern Missouri. More than 50 quarter horses at Shenandoah Stables near Moscow Mills, Missouri, died. Their practice arena had been sprayed with the tainted oil. Soon after, there were reports of hundreds of dead birds, chickens, dogs and cats in the area. Within weeks, the stable owner's young daughter was rushed to the hospital, bleeding and crying in pain. Her bladder was severely inflamed, and she had diarrhea, headaches, and aching joints.
Investigators from the federal Centers for Disease Control were called in to unravel the mystery of the girl's afflictions, and they discovered the culprit: dioxin.
In 1982, the CDC found some of the highest levels of dioxin in the town of Times Beach, Missouri. But it was only after a flood later that year spread the contamination and forced residents from their homes that the federal government agreed to buy out Times Beach property owners. More than 2,000 people moved and the town was closed down in early 1983 at a cost of approximately $30 million.
Vernon Houk, an assistant surgeon general at the CDC, was one of the federal officials who recommended the buyout. By May 1991, however, Houk apparently had revised his views about dioxin. He told attendees at a Columbia, Missouri conference on environmental health that he now believed Times Beach residents should never have been moved. Houk explained that new research was showing that dioxin is "not especially harmful to man."
Meanwhile, just a month earlier, the EPA, under pressure from the paper industry, announced that it would reevaluate the risks of dioxin.
The Sunbathing Analogy
The New York Times
ran an Associated Press story on Houk's reversal in its front section. A month earlier, in April, the Times had published an AP story on the EPA's decision to reevaluate the risks of dioxin. Nothing significant occurred in the months following those two reports, but on August 15, a front page article in the New York Times by Keith Schneider, headlined "U.S. Officials Say Dangers Of Dioxin Were Exaggerated," recycled the earlier stories.
Suddenly the tone of reporting on dioxin shifted; the Times piece was picked up and treated as if it were breaking news. At least 20 major newspapers reprinted the Times story, which other dailies followed up with their own similar reports and editorials that lambasted scientists for sowing panic and encouraging the government to waste money on dioxin cleanups.
Schneider wasn't surprised by the response. "We wanted to have a big splash with it," he says. "We felt that the media coverage of this environmental issue needed to be reassessed. We need to be a lot smarter because not everything is a disaster."
Among the follow-ups:
-- A headline on the front page of the August 16 Los Angeles Times
read "The Deadliness of Dioxin Put in Doubt by New Data."
-- A headline in the Chicago Tribune
on September 1 said, "On second thought, toxic nightmares may be unpleasant dreams," and on its editorial page on August 17 the paper asked rhetorically, "Dioxin: Not so deadly after all?"
-- In "The Double Take on Dioxin," Time
magazine reported in its August 26 issue that "recent studies suggest that the chemical may not be so dangerous." But the article, by Christine Gorman, did not cite any studies.
The favorite news bite for many reporters was Schneider's contention, attributed to "some experts," that exposure to dioxin was no more harmful than a week of sunbathing. But when they repeated it, most erroneously attributed the statement to scientists.
An August 19 editorial in the Arizona Republic
, for example, fumed over the money that government and businesses have wasted cleaning up "the bogyman [sic] chemical," and reported that "top federal scientists have now come to the belated conclusion that [dioxin] is about as harmful to humans as, say, a week's worth of sunbathing." Likewise, a reporter for the Newark Star-Ledger
wrote on August 16 that "some health specialists now rate dioxin as a risk comparable to going to the beach for a week and being exposed to sunlight."
In an August 17 Sacramento Bee
editorial, it was "a widening group of scientists" who had "come to the conclusion that exposure to dioxin under most circumstances is no more dangerous than spending a week at the beach." An AP story published in the Dallas Morning News
on September 3 noted that "some studies have concluded that the effects of dioxin are no worse on the body than a week of sunbathing."
Months later, on December 8, another New York Times
reporter, covering a dioxin lawsuit, wrote that "some experts now say that exposure to the chemical is no more risk than a week of tanning." And more than a year later, on October 14, 1992, Financial Times
reporter Peter Knight wrote that "last year a U.S. report described the danger from dioxin as no more harmful than a week of sunbathing."
All of the articles and editorials should have attributed the sunbathing quote to Schneider. The reporter acknowledges that no scientist had made the comparison between dioxin and sunbathing. He says he and his editors came up with the analogy by reviewing charts of risk factors for other hazards. "It was my metaphor," Schneider says. "But I ran it by Houk and two other epidemiologists and they agreed."
Some scientists strongly disagree. "It's an absurd comparison," says Dr. Richard Clapp, a professor at Boston University's School of Public Health who has studied dioxin and other health risks. "You could actually get a pretty strong carcinogenic dose from sunbathing, but I think in most people's minds [sun] is a kind of de minimus
EPA toxicologist Linda Birnbaum, the agency's chief researcher for its dioxin reassessment, says she sees no basis for comparing sunburn-induced skin cancer to dioxin's myriad health effects. "That's not just comparing apples and oranges," she says, "it's apples and baseballs."
Even Houk, who is still with CDC, says the analogy is inappropriate. "I don't know what a week of sunbathing exposure would do," he says. "I don't think those comparisons make very much sense because people don't understand them."
While there is legitimate debate over the exact degree of risk dioxin poses, no scientists contend that dioxin is safe. But the tone of much of the reporting and most of the editorials that followed Schneider's August 1991 article -- as well as his September 26, 1992 coverage of the scientific panel's meeting on dioxin reassessment -- gave readers the impression that the questions about dioxin's risk have been resolved: Scientists used to believe dioxin was dangers, now they know it is not.
For example, the August 17, 1991, Chicago Tribune
editorial stated that "there never was enough solid evidence of deadly toxicity in humans to justify the drastic steps and hundreds of millions of dollars spent to eliminate it." And following on the heels of Schneider's September 1992 piece, an editorial in the Detroit News
on September 29 concluded that "dioxin has turned out to be something of a non-issue where humans are concerned," making the millions of dollars spent by Dow Chemical on legal settlements and cleanup efforts "mostly unnecessary."
The scientists and government officials who are directly involved in dioxin research and evaluation have reached a different conclusion. According to George Lucier, the chief of the laboratory of biochemical risk analyses at the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), recent studies indicate that dioxin acts as a cancer promoter in that it enhances the ability of other poisons to cause a variety of cancers. Moreover, sources at the EPA say the agency's upcoming draft of its dioxin reassessment is almost certain to conclude that dioxin is a human carcinogen.
But cancer isn't the only problem. Studies conducted by NIEHS and other laboratories are showing significant connections between dioxin exposures and liver disorders, neurological problems, diabetes, and a long list of other maladies.
Even more troubling, dioxin also apparently compromises the body's ability to ward off disease. Scientists are finding that even the small amounts found in people's bodies -- five to seven parts per trillion of dioxin in their blood -- may interfere with their reproductive and immune systems.
This was a major concern of the EPA scientific panel that met in September 1992. Summarizing the panel's findings, EPA Assistant Administrator for Research and Development Erich Bretthauer wrote a memo to then-EPA Administrator William Reilly, warning, "Some data suggest that these effects may be occurring in people at [levels in their bodies] that can result from exposures at, or near, current background."
None of this has been reported by Schneider -- or by many others. Schneider acknowledges that he saw Bretthauer's memo last fall and that he was aware of studies on dioxin's other health effects. "I just never caught up with it," he says, but adds that he stands by his reporting. He also says his statement in a March 21, 1993, article that "new research indicates that dioxin may not be so dangerous after all," refers only to dioxin's cancer-causing potential, not other health effects. The article, however, fails to make that point.
The article also fails to cite any source for the assertion that dioxin is less dangerous than once believed. Schneider says he based the statement in part on comments by John Graham, director of the Center for Risk Analysis at Harvard's School of Public Health. However, in a recent interview, Graham disputed the characterization of dioxin as "less dangerous." Graham says that while dioxin's ability to cause cancer may have been overestimated, for certain non-cancer effects, especially immune system poisoning, "dioxin is more dangerous than we once thought."
Whether or not its cancer risk is less than originally believed, according to CDC health scientist Mark McClanahan, dioxin remains the most potent cancer-causing chemical ever tested. Even using the lowest cancer risk estimates suggested by industry studies, dioxin is still more than 200 times more powerful than the next most dangerous chemical, chloromethyl ether, and more than 2 million times more potent than benzene.
Houk -- and Schneider -- point to a study done in Italy to back up their contentions that dioxin is a weak carcinogen. They say the study found an absence of excess cancers among residents of Seveso, who were exposed to extraordinarily high levels of dioxin by a chemical plant explosion in 1976. Schneider says flatly that "there has been no cancer in that population."
However, papers presented at a 1991 international conference on dioxin in North Carolina indicate there is already a higher than normal number of cancer cases in Seveso, including liver cancer and soft tissue sarcoma, and extremely rare cancer of the muscles or connective tissue that is closely associated with dioxin.
Moreover, the latency period for most cancers is about 20 years, so the most serious problems won't begin showing up in Seveso until 1996.
Richard Clapp at Boston University says gauging the cancer rate in Seveso now is akin to checking on the man who jumped off the Empire State Building as he passes the tenth floor. "The person says, 'So far so good'," Clapp explains, but the worst is yet to come. Houk concedes as much. "It's too early to make a definitive statement [about Seveso], " he says. "We are going to have to wait."
Leaving aside the question of whether the weight of scientific evidence supports Houk's case, if an important public official like Houk had made a dramatic turnaround, Schneider certainly should have reported it in his August 1991 article. Houk, however, did not suddenly change his position. He had been saying the same thing for years -- and Schneider knew it.
The controversy over Houk's views on dioxin began in the mid-1980s when the CDC was studying the effects of dioxin-contaminated Agent Orange on Vietnam veterans. Retired Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr., who had ordered Agent Orange spraying in Vietnam and later worked to win compensation for exposed veterans, says that Houk had already decided dioxin was not dangerous when the CDC studies were done between 1982 and 1987. In a sworn affidavit, Zumwalt accused Houk of manipulating scientific data and participating in "an apparent public relations campaign, falsely claiming that previous assessments of…the harmful effects of dioxin have been overestimated."
Houk says Zumwalt is "crazy" and "ill-informed."
In 1988, Houk urged the Canadian government to relax dioxin standards in a letter to the director of the Ontario Region Health and Welfare. Houk wrote that dioxin "may be without consequence even in very high dose exposure to humans." Houk now says he was misquoted and that "no one in their right mind would make that statement. I clearly believe that dioxin is harmful at high levels." But when confronted with the letter during a July 26, 1990, hearing before a House Government Operations subcommittee. Houk acknowledged under oath that he had written those words.
Reporters who missed Houk's earlier revisionist views should have been aware that Houk appeared before that subcommittee to answer accusations of "improperly aiding the paper industry's campaign to loosen restrictions on dioxin pollution in water." The quote is from a July 27 New York Times
article written by Keith Schneider.
There was no hint of those earlier controversies in Schneider's story of August 1991, which included a sidebar on Houk's career that mentioned only Houk's "recent reversal."
What was new, or at least relatively new, was Houk's apology to Times Beach residents for needlessly moving them. However, Schneider did not mention that Houk's opinions were his own, and that under current CDC recommendations for maximum dioxin contamination in soil, Times Beach would still be considered too dangerous for people to live there.
Barry L. Johnson heads the federal agency responsible for deciding when people should be moved from contaminated communities. Yet, Johnson says no reporters contacted him for a reaction to Houk's statement. In a recent interview, the senior Public Health Service official said the decision to evacuate Times Beach was appropriate. "Given the scientific information we have today, we would take exactly the same action."
Even so, the day after Schneider's August 15, 1991, article, a New York Times
editorial claimed that "federal officials now believe they may have overreacted in setting extremely low exposure limits for dioxin and in permanently evacuating all the residents of Times Beach."
Three days later an editorial in the Indianapolis Star
began, "Thousands of lives have been cruelly disrupted…for no good reason save the rush to judgment by federal health authorities acting more from bureaucratic arrogance than valid scientific evidence."
magazine ran articles in its August 26, 1991, and March 9, 1992, issues, implying that Times Beach residents were unnecessarily forced from their homes. In March, Time reporter Dick Thompson wrote, "It was not so much the chemical that caused the chaos as it was a questionable government judgment about the risks of dioxin."
Marilyn Leistner was mayor of Times Beach when the town was evacuated. She says much of the press is missing the point. "Our lives were not disrupted for no reason," Leistner says. "We had to move because the dioxin was causing real health problems. To see a child born with cancer and then die after a few months…another baby born with kidneys on the outside of its body.All I can say is that I'd take a week in the sun any time over moving back to Times Beach."
The Industry Campaign
The late Rep. Tad Weiss (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House subcommittee that held hearings on dioxin last June, accused the nation's leading newspapers of falling for a chlorine and paper industry propaganda campaign to downgrade the contaminant's risks. "The industry campaign is proof of an old maxim," Weiss said. "If you repeat a lie often enough, people will start believing it."
The first mainstream news organization to disclose the industry role in the controversy was The Wall Street Journal
. A February 20, 1992, front page article by Jeff Bailey asserts that the current "reappraisal of dioxin "is as much a result of a well-financed public relations campaign by the paper and chlorine industries as it is a result of new research."
Bailey pointed out that those two industries have much to gain if dioxin standards are relaxed. The American Forest & Paper Association (AFPA) estimates that its members have already spent more than $1 billion reducing dioxin contamination, a byproduct of the chlorine used to bleach pulp for paper. And the paper industry worries that cleanup costs will escalate if regulations are not changed. There are also dozens of dioxin-related lawsuits against paper mills pending.
AFPA President Red Cavaney will not confirm that his trade group is lobbying for more relaxed dioxin standards. AFPA's position, he says, "is to support the lawful right of individual states to determine their own standards."
When it comes to writing those standards, though, the paper mills have aggressively promoted the view that dioxin is a weak poison, and AFPA has asked CEOs of member companies to lobby governors of states with major paper mills. Several states have responded by adopting less stringent regulations for dioxin discharges into water than the EPA recommends.
Schneider acknowledges he was aware of the industry's campaign to weaken dioxin standards, but rejects any suggestion that he was "duped" by industry lobbying.
"There are vested interests in all of this…." he says. "For Greenpeace, NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), Sierra Club and others who have been painting dioxin as the death toxin of the world it means great public fear and fundraising. And for an industry to paint it as the safest thing since Kool-Aid, it means billions of dollars in pollution control cost savings."
Like environmental groups and the paper and chlorine industries, the corporations that own newspapers and magazines are not disinterested parties in the dioxin controversy. All buy paper, which will become more expensive if paper producers are forced to buy pollution control equipment or settle lawsuits. Many newspapers also are part-owners of paper mills.
There is no evidence that any publication has intentionally slanted coverage to promote the interests of its corporate owners, but newspapers' financial stake in the dioxin issue does raise questions of a conflict of interest that newspapers and magazines have neither disclosed nor addressed.
"The newspaper coverage of the dioxin issue has been scandalous," says Marc Smolonsky, the former chief investigator for a House Government Operations subcommittee. Smolonsky, now at the nonprofit Center for Resource Economics in Washington, D.C., investigated the dioxin issue for the committee, which held four hearings from 1989 through 1992.
The newspapers "would fail the standards of appearance of conflict of interest that [they] hold politicians to," he says. "They should reveal their own business involvement with the paper industry."
Newspaper company executives maintain that conflict of interest is not a problem because corporate officers do not interfere with editorial judgments. New York Times Co. Vice President Stephen Golden says newspaper executives at papers like the Times "would never make an effort to influence coverage for business reasons. That would be inconsistent with our fundamental beliefs." Guy Knight, a spokesman for the Washington Post Co., says his corporation exercise no control over what is reported. "Those decisions are made by the editors on this and every other subject," he says. "The news side reports what it deems worthy and the corporation pursues its interests."
In any case, several newspapers with direct financial interests in paper and timber companies have taken editorial positions supporting relaxed dioxin standards without disclosing their ties to the industry.
-- Central Newspapers, owned by former Vice President Dan Quayle's family, partly owns a newsprint mill in Washington state. It also owns the Arizona Republic and Indianapolis Star, which both have published news stories and editorials arguing that dioxin is not especially dangerous.
-- The Times Mirror Co., which owns the Los Angeles Times, holds a 20 percent share of a paper company with timberlands and two mills in Oregon. Times Mirror owned the company entirely until 1986. According to Carol Van Strum, an Oregon author who has written extensively on dioxin, the paper company was involved in a long battle with activists in the 1970s over the use of herbicides on forest lands. Activists claimed the herbicides were contaminating the land with dioxin.
-- Over a span of four days in mid-August 1991, the Los Angeles Times ran a front page story, an editorial, and an op-ed piece questioning strict dioxin standards without mentioning the Times Mirror holdings. Although Times reporter Rudy Abramson corrected the record a year later, on September 26, when he reported on the EPA scientific panel's review of dioxin's health effects, his story ran on page A-12 and was not followed by an editorial.
-- Los Angeles Times Editorial Page Editor Thomas Plate says the paper's policy is to disclose corporate interests when it's appropriate. "If we are making a frontal attack on an issue that affects the corporation's interests, then absolutely we will have disclosure," he says. Plate says he was unaware that Times Mirror had any significant interest in paper mills.
-- N. Don Wycliff, editorial page editor of the Chicago Tribune, concedes that his paper should have mentioned the Tribune Co.'s ownership of paper mills when it editorialized on August 17, 1991, that "dioxin may be only a small hazard to human health and only a weak carcinogen, if it is one at all." At the time, Wycliff says, he was unaware that dioxin had been associated with the paper industry.
-- Meg Greenwald, editorial page editor of the Washington Post, says in some cases she believes it is better that editorial writers do not know what other businesses their newspaper owns. "I don't think it would be a usefult situation to have the editorial board up to their ears in the details of corporate involvement," she says. "They can indulge a certain blithe indifference."
Washington Post Company Vice President and Counsel Bo Jones says the disclosure issue is not relevant for his newspaper because no dioxin has been detected at the two paper mills that are partly owned by the Post. A cursory investigation of the Post's mills indicates that this is correct. Plants that produce only newsprint are less likely to have dioxin problems because they use less bleach than those plants producing coated paper for magazines.
-- The New York Times Co.'s Golden says "there are no dioxins associated with any mill in which The New York Times
has an interest."
However, in 1991 two Native American tribes filed a $1.3 billion lawsuit against the New York Times Co. and Kimberly-Clark Corp., co-owners of a Canadian paper mill, for allegedly contaminating rivers with dioxin. The Times reported the lawsuit in a seven-inch story that ran deep inside its business section on August 14 – one day before Schneider's seminal front page dioxin story. On the day Schneider's piece ran, another business section story reported that the Times Co. and Kimberly-Clark had agreed to give the paper mill to an employee-led group of investors.
The next day, on August 16, The New York Times
published an editorial supporting relaxed dioxin standards. The lawsuit was not mentioned.
Golden says the lawsuit had nothing to do with dioxin. Yet the Times' business section reported the lawsuit charges that the paper mill released "dioxins and other dangerous substances into three rivers."
Gold says dioxin is not much of a concern anyway, because "the accumulating scientific evidence is showing dioxin is not so harmful. I mean it probably isn't good to drink a whole soda can full of pure dioxin, but the accumulating scientific evidence is showing that dioxin is not the frightening thing we once believed."
The author of the editorial, Deputy Editorial Page Editor Phillip Boffey, says Times editorial writers "are supposed to cite financial interests however tangential….I just failed to do it in this case because frankly I was unaware of the lawsuit.
"If I was doing a piece now," he adds, "I would certainly stick it in."
While a substantial body of new research conducted over the past two years has bolstered the contention that dioxin is at least as toxic as previously feared, only a few reporters have covered these developments:
-- An article by Mike Magner of Newhouse News Service published in the Portland Oregonian on March 15, 1992, referred to studies showing "dioxin behaves like a hormone that, even in tiny amounts, can change the reproductive and immune systems, especially in fetuses."
-- On March 24, 1992, the New York Times science section ran a feature by Jon R. Luoms detailing how dioxin interferes with the fertility and the sexual development of animals.
-- Two weeks later, in U.S. News & World Report's April 6 issue, Karen F. Schmidt presented a clear explanation of the complicated mechanisms through which dioxin damages the human body. "Dioxin's cancer threat pales next to newly discovered risks," Schmidt reported. "A viral infection that rarely kills a normal mouse is fatal to mice injected with trace amounts of dioxin."
-- The Atlanta Journal and Constitution has over the past few years published some of the most thorough and balanced reporting on the dioxin issue. Reports by Steve Sternberg, Charles Seabrook and others covered Vernon Houk's role in the CDC Agent Orange studies and have explored both side's of the debate over dioxin's toxicity, as well as the influence of Georgia's paper industry in convincing the state to adopt the most lenient dioxin standard in the nation.
The Baltimore Sun, Boston Globe and Wall Street Journal also have covered the dioxin issue better than most. Unfortunately, the above news organizations are the exceptions.
A "Defining Issue"
Keith Schneider's coverage of dioxin has surprised many in the environmental community, considering that he has written for publications that are considered champions of environmentalism, including Mother Jones
and Buzzworm, a Colorado-based environmental magazine. He also has won plaudits from environmentalists since he joined The New York Times
in 1985 for his reporting on nuclear weapons plants. But recently, they say, Schneider has presented distorted views on several environmental issues, including radon and toxic waste.
"It makes it much more painful when a person of Schneider's abilities and guts caves in to ignorance or pressure," says Peter Montague, director of the Annapolis-based Environmental Research Foundation. "Either he is intentionally misleading his readers, or his fundamentally ignorant of the topics he is writing on."
Schneider knows he has alienated many environmentalists but says that reporters were "co-opted" by environmental groups in the 1980s "in a way that was detrimental to the integrity of journalism" and "very dangerous and expensive to the country."
For Schneider, dioxin coverage is a "defining issue…forcing environmental journalists to look at how they are writing these stories … and whose side they are taking." Schneider says he's at the "forefront" of a "new era of environmental reporting," in which "we look [at] and view all sides equally skeptically, and that we come to conclusions basted on data, not on the frantic ravings of one side or another."
Most journalists would agree with Schneider's prescription, but it is The New York Times
reporter's execution that raises questions. And unfortunately, many news organizations made conclusions based on Schneider's assertions, such as the "fact" that dioxin is no more dangerous than sunbathing, without reviewing the data or checking the source of the information.
The science that provides the foundation for environmental regulations is complicated and constantly changing, with new studies pointing to new conclusions and new ways of thinking about risks. Schneider goes so far as to say, "There is no truth in this field. There is only a body of evidence…that is all in transition and evolution."
Covering an issue like the health risks of dioxin therefore requires a good deal of time and effort to seek out the most knowledgeable scientists , weigh competing views, and sift through complex data. But that is no excuse for journalists to forego their own reporting. The coverage of dioxin is a glaring example of the danger of blindly accepting facts as reported by any other news organization – even if it's the New York Times.
Vicki Monks, a Maryland-based journalist, has written for Rolling Stone and Vogue and reported for National Public Radio.