The Fourth Estate…

There always seems to be a tension between the media (and there obsession with black and white issues and succinct storylines) and the nuances of complex scientific knowledge (Miller 2009, Sismondo 2010). Miller (2009) even goes so far as to say that ‘environmental journalists’ could benefit from additional training in order to better understand the type of science that they are covering, especially since he claims that these journalists are essentially assigned their task. On the other hand, Sismono (2010) differentiates ‘science journalists’ as those who have some sort of understanding of the field in which they cover. I almost get the feeling that ‘environmental journalists’ come from a general pool of availability, whereas ‘science journalists’ are at least scientifically trained and have a vested interest , at least based on ideas set forth in the Miller (2009) and Sismondo (2010) articles. Even so, ‘catastrophic’ events can energize any type of journalist.

The 1984 environmental disaster in Bhopal, India and the subsequent media storm (Hazarika 1994), is an excellent case study involving the interaction between media, industry, organizational and governmental policy. In Miller’s (2009) article, he notes the role of media executives in choosing what is ‘newsworthy’ . As such, stories that get the most attention are those having conflict and novelty (Miller 2009). The Bhopal disaster was rife with conflict between a major American multi-national chemical company (Union Carbide), government regulators, and the affected population around Bhopal (Hazarika 1994). The fact that AMERICA was involved helped elevate the story to ‘newsworthy’ status (Hazarika 1994). Pictures of dead bodies, afflicted children, and an unrepentant multi-national corporation were the red meat for media it seemed (Hazarika 1994, Miller 2009).

Even so, Miller (2009) noted that a major objective of the media is to balance sides of a story. In the Bhopal case, both industry and government regulators were equally chastised for failures (Hazarika 1994). This balance does come at a cost. Like many environmental and engineering disasters, it is a complex case and yet the media need to fill column inches or minutes of air time (Miller 2009, Sismondo 2010), which seems to fall under the dominant model.  In the dominant model (Sismondo 2010), complex scientific issues are simplified to reach the broadest audience. In the case of the media, or ‘infotainment’ (Miller 2009), does the dominant model of ‘simplification’ imply the deficit model (Sismondo 2010)? In other words, is the media rationale that science is too complex to understand, so there is a need to ‘dumb it down’ for the public?

Another timely point is that the media are reactive, not proactive (Hazarika 1994) and lose interest (or reduce column inches or time slots) over the long-term outcomes of a story such as Bhopal. Miller (2009) even noted that media do not that think that progress is newsworthy. For example, one of the major outcomes of the Bhopal disaster was an update of the Superfund bill (known as SARA), and the addition of ‘Title III’ where it called for chemical industries to report their hazardous waste and inform the community (Right to Know). Hazarika (1994) reported that newspapers “ignored Title III altogether when the bill passed” even though it was the most salient issue to people who may be affected by these disasters in the future.

Although the story of Union Carbide and Bhopal had no major whistleblowers, according to Davis (1998), it should have. Two of Davis’ (1998) criteria for making whistleblowing a good idea, including 1) poor management, and 2) organizational trouble were predominant at Union Carbide (Hazarika 1994). The plant in Bhopal was so mismanaged and unorganized that it was considered for closure by Union Carbide prior to the disaster (Hazarika 1994). Warning signs and small leaks were ignored until the worst happened. Although whistleblowing can act as a check on an organization’s improper practices, Davis (1998) argues that the prevention of it by changing organizational procedures, education, and structure of risk management is more preferred. This incident was unique as it uncovered such a systemic problem of the chemical industry (Bhopal, Industry (WV), and other leaks) that regulation of the chemical industry was an organic phenomenon (Hazarika 1994). It took the disaster to lead to changes in the industry as a whole, along with the spurring by negative media coverage. Despite the tension between policy, media, and science, in this case, the media coverage was the catalyst for massive organizational change. Whistleblowing and the media seem to be important checks on systems that may potentially falter under their own improper practices.

Works Cited:

Davis, M. 1998. “Avoiding the Tragedy of Whistleblowing.” In Thinking Like an Engineer: Studies in the Ethics of a Profession, pp. 73-82. New York, NY and Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Hazarika, S. 1994. “From Bhopal to Superfund: The News Media and the Environment,” pp. 1-14.

Miller, N. 2009. “The Media Business.” In Environmental Politics: Stakeholders, Interest, and Policymaking, 2nd ed., pp. 149-165. New York and London: Routledge.

Sismondo, S. 2010. “The Public Understanding of Science.” In An Introduction to Science and Technology Studies, 2nd ed., pp. 168-179. West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.